Architects of George W. Bush's meticulously planned presidential campaign received an unanticipated benefit when the candidate said Christ was the most decisive influence on his life. Far from being the blunder claimed by critics, that statement actually enhances prospects of his wrapping up the Republican nomination by early February.

At year's end, the Texas governor's national campaign team here sees his statement at the Dec. 13 Des Moines, Iowa, debate as needed reinforcement with social conservatives. That is invaluable in a conservative party where Bush's principal challenger is Sen. John McCain, who has become anathema to the Republican right.

Contesting McCain is unexpected, unlikely and much welcome for Bush's political inner circle. Senior campaign aides, here this week preparing for two decisive months ahead while the candidate vacations in Florida, are delighted by the juxtaposition of McCain's rise and the Christ answer. Bush as a man of faith attracts Republicans who cannot abide McCain but might back Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer or Alan Keyes.

Even Bush lieutenants were startled when Bush named Christ as the "philosopher or thinker" he "most identified with." But polling data showed widespread approval by Republican voters. What's more, his affirmation fits the crucial 2000 early primary schedule.

Bush's lead over McCain of 46 points in the final 1999 poll is the largest margin ever recorded by Gallup in the December before a presidential election. His problem is New Hampshire, where the political climate and tactical errors produce a slight McCain lead. Talking about Christ doesn't help Bush in New Hampshire, where social conservatives are in shorter supply.

The governor's strategists admit he was hurt by skipping New Hampshire's first two debates (while insisting, implausibly, that Bush's schedule made that omission unavoidable). In a traditionally anti-tax state, the cautious Bush tax reduction package has not helped. Although McCain now opposes reduction in the Democratic-imposed 39 percent top tax rate, the senator's revised tax plan, due Jan. 17, may offer a stiffer challenge.

If Bush pulls out a New Hampshire win Feb. 1, the nomination is his that early. If he does not, however, his image as a believer helps in two crucial states: Iowa and South Carolina.

Bush's team has been nervous about Iowa, whose Monday-night caucuses begin delegate selection Jan. 24. Conservatives always do better than expected there, and Forbes has a good grass-roots organization. A first-place finish with a turnout well below Bush's polling level would be interpreted as a setback leading into the New Hampshire primary, as it was for Bob Dole in 1996.

The Christ statement helps in Iowa, where religious conservatives are more likely to attend caucuses than other voters. It pinned down the Rev. Dick Hardy of Des Moines, who will be unveiled next week heading Iowa Families for Bush.

Possibly even more significant was the approval of Bush's affirmation voiced at a school assembly by Bob Jones III, president of fundamentalist Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C. With Bush expected to win Delaware Feb. 8, McCain would need a win in South Carolina Feb. 19.

It is an uphill climb, with current polls showing Bush over 30 points ahead and backed by the party establishment that saved South Carolina for front-runners in 1980, 1988 and 1996. McCain can hope that the state's formidable body of religious conservatives will be siphoned off from Bush by lesser candidates. Kind words from the likes of Bob Jones counter that.

If McCain loses South Carolina, he is finished. If he somehow pulls it out, he faces a serious Bush challenge three days later (on Feb. 22) in his own state of Arizona, and a big Bush advantage in Michigan. That is followed by primaries Feb. 29 in North Dakota and Virginia, where the frontrunner seems safe, and Washington State, where he may face a somewhat tougher challenge. It is a bleak prospect for John McCain.

Meanwhile, Bush counts on an uncontested sweep in "island primaries": Virgin Islands, Guam and Samoa caucuses Feb. 26 and Puerto Rico's primary Feb. 27. Just to make sure, Puerto Rican Republican leaders were quietly slipped in as guests at the governor's mansion here. No wonder his team finds it hard not to sound overconfident.

(c) 1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.