When James Muffett agreed a month ago to take charge of the Freedom Council's drive to recruit precinct delegate candidates here in the 6th Congressional District, the first thing he did was call all of his friends who are fundamentalist Christian pastors.
"It was like mining gold," marveled Muffett, 30, who is the associate pastor of a Christian Fellowship in East Lansing.
The ministers would give him the name of a politically aware church member, and Muffett took it from there. He spent a month of "18-hour days" teaching them to teach the fellow members of their congregations how and why they should delve into the alien thicket of local politics.
That pyramid style of organizing through a network of small, mostly suburban and rural churches -- along with an investment of $340,000 in staff salaries, computers and mailings -- paid off handsomely this week for the Freedom Council and its founder, television evangelist Marion G. (Pat) Robertson, who says he is contemplating a run for president.
The Council claims to have recruited 4,500 of the estimated 9,600 people who filed by Tuesday's deadline for precinct delegate -- a low-level party slot that has taken on considerable significance in Michigan this year because, several steps down the political road, precinct delegates will select Michigan's 77 delegates to the 1988 GOP National Convention.
The showing upstaged the efforts of organizations allied with Vice President George Bush and Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), each of whom had been so busy trying to embarrass the other in the first event of the long presidential pre-campaign that they were caught off-guard by the strength of the fundamentalist Christian movement emerging all over the state, but especially in rural areas of the southwest, the west and the Upper Peninsula.
Spokesmen for Bush's Fund for America's Future claimed yesterday to have recruited half of all delegate candidates who filed, and spokesmen for Kemp's Michigan Opportunity Society said they had recruited nearly 3,000 to be delegates. The numbers add up to more than 9,600 -- meaning that one or more of the three camps is telling more than 100 percent of the truth, or that multiple camps are claiming the same delegates.
The Bush and Kemp estimates were projections based on partial canvasses they conducted of their county organizers; the Freedom Council's claim was based on complete reports from all 18 of its congressional district organizers. All claims are subject to dispute, however, because none of the delegates is formally identified with any group or candidate. No one has run an independent check of the delegates to see who they say they are for, and they may change their minds about who they support at any time.
Many professional politicians here -- perhaps with a trace of wishful thinking -- said they think that this week eventually will turn out to have been Robertson's best moment in the state's protracted, two-year delegate selection process.
They note that Robertson has a ready-made network of true believers -- ideal for any political contest that measures success on the basis of recruiting a relatively small number of activists. They predict he will find it difficult to make the political leap from preaching to the choir to converting the masses.
"I think we are going to find that there are a lot of people here who love Pat Robertson for minister, but don't want him for president. We think they'll be ours," said W. Clark Durant III, chairman of the Michigan Opportunity Society, Kemp's political action committee.
"Tuesday is going to be their best day of this whole process," said GOP National Committeeman Peter Secchia, a cochairman of the Bush organization.
The next test for Robertson will come in the GOP primary Aug. 5, when there will be precinct-level campaigns between delegate candidates recruited by the rival camps. (A total of almost 14,500 delegate slots were available; in most of them, no candidate filed or only one filed, meaning there will be no contest.)
"I'm hoping that on Aug. 5, in the contested precincts, you'll have candidates walking around with a big B branded on their forehead, some with a big K and some with a big R," said Oakland County Prosecutor L. Brooks Patterson, a state cochair for the Bush PAC. "We'll do real well if we get that kind of information out."
The Freedom Council is a tax-exempt educational group prohibited by law from promoting a candidacy, and it will not openly promote a possible Robertson presidential bid. Its brochures in Michigan make no mention of a candidacy. The group focuses instead on state-funded abortions, the teaching of humanistic values in schools and the lack of enforcement of antipornography laws.