Marion G. (Pat) Robertson, a television evangelist whose talk-show ministry reaches millions of Americans, is quietly considering an attempt to ride the crest of conservative born-again support for the Republican Party to the 1988 GOP presidential nomination.
Few political professionals think that the 56-year-old TV host of the 700 Club and son of former Virginia senator A. Willis Robertson (D) has any real chance of seizing the nomination from the likes of a George Bush or a Jack Kemp. But some think that Robertson's prominent place in the Christian right may make him a potent "wild card" in the presidential politics of 1988.
Robertson comes armed with a donor base as large as that of the Republican National Committee, his own "fourth" television network and an evangelical style that has helped him create his Christian empire.
He also carries what some Republicans -- and, privately, some of his fellow New Right Christians -- consider heavy political baggage. Robertson's millions of viewers know him as a man who believes in faith healing and divine intervention. They have heard him relate what he calls his conversations with God.
Robertson says he believes that through television prayers, he and his co-hosts can provide not only spiritual salvation, but cures for everything from brain tumors to tennis injuries to reproductive disorders.
"What is a voter who has never been exposed to this kind of thing going to think when they see a clip of a presidential candidate saying 'I see someone driving a yellow Volkswagen whose ulcers will soon be healed'? " asks a key leader of another Christian right organization.
Robertson's belief in securing the intervention of Jesus Christ through prayer extends to his claims that he has kept at bay hurricanes, which frequently threaten Tidewater Virginia. On a recent television show, Robertson said his prayers once headed off such a storm: "We rebuked that thing. We commanded it."
Asked in an interview about the possibility of his running for president, Robertson said, "I'm praying about it."
In addition to praying, he has purchased a 24-seat jet aircraft; set up a precinct-based organization called the Freedom Council; provided preliminary funding for a think tank, the National Perspectives Institute, and developed strong ties to such Washington-based New Right leaders as direct-mail specialist Richard Viguerie, Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation and Howard Phillips of the Conservative Caucus.
As word of Robertson's interest in a presidential bid has filtered into the political community, the reactions of party and religious strategists have ranged from outright dismissal to a fear that he is engaged in a futile, megalomaniac drive that will fracture the Christian right to a prediction that the born-again televangelist will control enough delegates in 1988 to become a convention kingmaker.
"I just don't see where it [a Robertson candidacy] goes," said Charles Black, a senior adviser to the Reagan-Bush '84 campaign. "There are five people who would run ahead of him in any primary or caucus," he said, referring to Rep. Kemp (R-N.Y.), Vice President Bush, Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), former senator Howard H. Baker (R-Tenn.) and former Delaware governor Pierre du Pont.
But Republican pollster Robert Teeter said a Robertson candidacy can't be dismissed. "If you have a candidate who could mobilize the evangelical Christian vote," he said, "then he could be significant." And any candidate who could enlarge the GOP primary electorate could alter the presidential-selection process in ways that are impossible to anticipate, he added.
"I don't do anything unless it is to win. You never go out to lose," Robertson said in an interview here at his $22 million Christian Broadcasting Network headquarters, the core of a part-religious, part-commerical empire grossing more than $200 million yearly.
But his ability to win even a degree of influence within the nominating process depends on two unknowns:
The first is his capacity to convert a devoted television audience into men and women who go to precinct caucuses, set up local headquarters and write checks to political action committees. The second is the potential of the intensely competitive leadership of the Christian right to sink or support his candidacy.
Robertson just might significantly alter the nurturing but wary relationship the GOP has developed with the conservative Christian community.
The Christian political mobilization has provided the Republican Party with an important source of new votes. At the same time, however, the hard-line views of the Christian right on abortion, sexuality and the teaching of evolution, opposition to "secular humanism," the emphasis on Christian salvation and, in some sects, faith healing, could alienate a broad spectrum of American voters.
"We look like we could be the mirror image of the Democrats in 1984," Republican pollster Lance Tarrance said, only half in jest, referring to the fracturing of Democratic support in the last presidential contest. "We've got George Bush playing the role of Walter Mondale, Jack Kemp playing [Sen.] Gary Hart D-Colo. and Pat Robertson playing Jesse Jackson."
Robertson has said "we have enough votes to run the country," the kind of talk that seems to send a chill of fear down the spines of many Republican strategists and pollsters.
Unwilling to criticize the Christian right movement publicly, their privately voiced goal is to maintain the conservative Christian vote as a reliable but subservient part of the Republican coalition, much as blacks are now part of the Democratic coalition. While the Christian vote is a key element of President Reagan's coalition, these Republican strategists argue that over the long haul, new voters with much more tolerant and libertarian views will outnumber new Christian voters.
The current and potential importance of the Christian vote is generally accepted. A. James Reichley of the Brookings Institution says in the forthcoming book "Religion in American Political Life": "If anything approaching this level of support [for the GOP] is maintained in future elections, and if it eventually is translated into voting for Republicans for state and local offices, the Republican Party will be well on its way to regaining the majority party status it lost in the 1930s."
A Robertson candidacy, however, could split the Christian right. Many leaders of the conservative Christian movement would prefer to use their political muscle for more traditional politicians -- Kemp and Bush particularly -- instead of giving political help to a competitor in the religious marketplace.
The Moral Majority's Jerry Falwell, for example, has already endorsed Bush for 1988, and many activists in Christian Voice -- a tripartite organization with a Capitol Hill lobbying arm, a political action committee and a foundation -- are strongly inclined to support Kemp.
Howard Phillips contends, however, that a Robertson candidacy has the potential to further mobilize Christian voters.
In the 1980 and 1984 elections, the political mobilization of white Christian fundamentalists provided a wave of support for Republican candidates. From a pro-Democratic margin of 56 to 43 in 1976, the evangelical vote shifted to 61 to 39 in 1980 in favor of Reagan and to 81 to 19 for him in 1984, according to Reichley's analysis of network and newspaper exit polls.
These figures suggest that over the past eight years there has been a switch of 8.25 million presidential votes from Democratic to Republican among the nation's 22 million white, born-again Protestants.
Perhaps more importantly, exit polls suggest that the conservative Christians' march to the Republican Party was not restricted to voting for Reagan, a popular president.
White evangelicals, many of whom had been loyal Democrats, in 1984 cast an extraordinary 77 percent of their ballots for GOP congressional candidates, just four percentage points below their support for Reagan.
Robertson's entry into the presidential race would almost assuredly disrupt the generally paternalistic relationship the Republican Party has had with Christian right voters. This born-again political movement has brought to the GOP armies of supporters, who have helped break the Democratic hold on the South, who have a ready-made organizational structure to offer the party and who have shown a willingness to make the Republican Party their home.
The Reagan administration has cultivated leaders of the fundamentalist Christian community largely through symbolic ceremonies, athough the president has endorsed much of their agenda. He has not, however, used his clout to push hard for it in Congress.
Both the Republican National Committee and the Reagan-Bush '84 Committee created Christian liaisons with almost no public fanfare, and major Republican fundraisers quietly channeled at least $2 million into Christian political mobilization last year.
The importance given the Christian vote by the Reagan-Bush committee was reflected in the decision in 1984 of Joe Rodgers, the committee's finance chairman, to set up a highly complex procedure to channel tax-deductible contributions into white Christian voter drives.
Robertson contends that the Reagan presidency has "laid a foundation" for a marriage between social-issue (abortion, pornography, school prayer) conservatives and economic-issue (tax and spending cuts) conservatives that could "be the dominant majority for the rest of this century."
Reagan is so popular that "I think in some states he could run for creator," Robertson said, adding that in 1988 "it's going to be an awful, awful gap and I don't know whether anybody is capable of doing it. Certainly, among the contenders, nobody rises to that unique stature." Asked if he considers himself to have that stature, Robertson replied: "I couldn't conceivably answer that question."
A highly successful entrepreneurial Christian, Robertson has used his 700 Club to build his Christian Broadcasting Network into a minor-league fourth network, airing a 1-to-3 mix of religious shows with such 1950s reruns as "The Rifleman" and Groucho Marx's "You Bet Your Life" on 5,000 cable systems throughout the country.
Started in 1959 in a rundown Portsmouth, Va., UHF station, with a goal of raising $10 a month from each of 700 members, the 700 Club has become a huge moneymaker. Officials of CBN refuse to disclose their total revenues. Members are asked to give $15 a month, or $180 a year, and have the option of joining the 1,000 or 2,500 clubs for those willing to give that much money annually.
"He has a million regular donors, which is more than anyone else, except perhaps the Republican Party," said Paul Weyrich.
Here in Virginia Beach, Robertson has during the past 25 years overseen the acquisition and development of 600 acres of prime property in one of the fastest-growing sections of the country.
He has built a $22 million broadcast center, a $13 million library for his fledgling CBN University offering master's degrees in five professional fields from journalism to Bible studies and a $13 million world outreach building. And he has plans to build a hotel and conference center.
The base of Robertson's organization, the 700 Club, has a claimed audience of 7.2 million households a week, although accurate figures for shows aired largely on cable and UHF frequencies are notoriously difficult to obtain.
The show provides a mix of news and features with a strong conservative or religious tilt. Robertson serves as host along with Danuta Soderman and Ben Kinchlow, a former Black Muslim.
Robertson lacks the hellfire and damnation style of such televangelicals as Jimmy Swaggart and James Robison. Instead, he combines the assurance and worldliness of a handsome, well-bred Virginian educated in private schools from prep school through Yale Law School with his special brand of charismatic theology.
The 700 Club is produced here with a technical proficiency that rivals commercial network standards. Shown at regular intervals during the daily 90-minute production are commercials produced by CBN's marketing staff asking viewers to join the 700 Club.
Robertson's total cash flow -- he described it at $230 million this year, "give or take $30 million" -- is more than twice that of his nearest competitors among politically active television evangelists.
A 1982 report filed with the Internal Revenue Service that described some expenditures listed $15.14 million as the cost of producing religious shows, primarily the 700 Club; $26.93 million for buying air time; $11.54 million for operating telephone and mail centers and $8.1 million to send CBN by satellite to cable franchises.
Robertson's theological vision is of a world where God financially rewards those who tithe, where the person who invests profitably is doing the Lord's work and where the "unity" of Christian principles provides a wellspring of economic productivity and creativity.
As for running for president, Robertson says he believes that God will ultimately decide whether he should do it and will convey His decision during one of their conversations.