NASHUA, N.H., FEB. 12 -- The first event on Pat Robertson's campaign schedule Thursday was a speech before the Hudson, N.H., Rotary Club, where the candidate answered a voter's question by laying out forthrightly an idea he has been writing about for years: his plan to eliminate the federal Social Security program over time by letting workers set up private bank accounts in lieu of paying Social Security taxes.
The second event on Robertson's schedule that day was an interview with Judy Woodruff of the "MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour." Woodruff asked about Robertson's plan for "abolishing the Social Security System." "Well, now, Judy," the candidate replied, " . . . I wouldn't do that."
But a few sentences later, he said that he did want to move from "a compulsory government-unfunded program to a . . . private program." A moment later, he said that his proposal "isn't abolishing Social Security."
Those two exchanges, roughly 20 minutes apart, crystallize Robertson's ever-changing approach to a potentially serious obstacle of his fast-moving presidential campaign -- the long "paper trail" of controversial speeches and writings he turned out during his three decades as a fundamentalist preacher.
Sometimes, Robertson explains fully what he has said or written in the past. Sometimes he holds to his old position, but drapes it in less flamboyant or less biblical language than he used to employ. Sometimes he flatly denies what he has said in the past. And sometimes he just ignores the question.
The consensus in "mainstream" political circles is that Robertson will have to find a consistent way to deal with his outspoken past if he is to become a serious contender for the Republican nomination. So far, Robertson has not done that. But the paper-trail problem has proved no problem among Robertson's hard-core backers, drawn largely from the evangelical community.
Robertson's born-again Christian supporters are satisfied -- indeed, inspired -- with his overall message, which does not change. He promises to "restore the greatness of America through moral strength," to eliminate the budget deficit without raising taxes, to "decolonize the Soviet empire" and to bring home all American hostages by getting tough on terrorism.
Generally, the candidate does not explain how he would do these things. At a Jan. 20 news conference in Dubuque, Iowa, Robertson was asked to give specifics of his promise to cut $100 billion from the federal budget his first month in office. He looked around the room and said, "Does anyone else have a question?"
In a Des Moines news conference Monday, a reporter asked how Robertson would fulfill his promise to bring home hostages. He answered, "The activity is too far down the line to discuss that."
Many Republican politicians say the most damaging part of Robertson's paper trail is his history of drawing specific lessons about current events from ancient scripture. As a preacher, for example, Robertson wrote often that the future of the Middle East is preordained in the Old Testament.
Robertson wrote that the 38th chapter of Ezekiel tells him that there will definitely be "an invasion of Israel . . . by Russia, Iran, Ethiopia and Libya . . . . When the smoke clears Soviet Russia will be reduced to a fourth-rate power and Israel will be the wonder of the world. This is what the Bible tells us will happen, and it will happen."
Robertson seems to hold this view today. It seems to shape his policy views toward the Middle East. But he expresses the thought now in less certain terms and without mentioning Ezekiel.
"I have felt that one day the Soviets or their satellites will invade Israel," he told Time magazine. "I do not think the U.S. is going to go war with the Soviets over Israel, but we might be drawn into something . . . . I think that the Soviet Union is destined to fall."
For years, Robertson also cited scripture as the basis for his view that women should hold a subservient place to men. On Dec. 10, 1982, he addressed the women in his television audience: "Please don't make your husbands think that in order to accept Jesus Christ they have to submit to you, because no macho man wants to submit to you . . . . That's scriptural, and that's the way it should be."
The same position was reflected in Robertson's comments when Corazon Aquino ran for the presidency of the Philippines in 1986. "I don't think, very frankly," Robertson said, "Corrie Aquino has the capacity to govern . . . . She's the wife of a man who was shot, essentially a housewife. I don't mean to downgrade housewives . . . . "
Robertson seems to hold the same view about women's status today, but here again he expresses it without the biblical reference. "A family is a team," he says on the campaign trail. "Any team needs a leader." To soften the edge somewhat, he notes that the highest-paid staffer on his campaign, Constance Snapp, is a woman.
Sometimes Robertson deals with controversial statements from his past by denying he made them. This was the case when he was asked about his comments in January 1985 that only Jews and Christians who have submitted themselves to Jesus -- his definition of a born-again Christian -- are entitled to jobs in government.
Robertson told reporters earlier this year that he never said such a thing. Confronted with a videotape of the comment, he has offered varying explanations, sometimes trying to explain what he meant and sometimes saying he simply forgot making the comments. As a candidate today, Robertson says he is committed to "our pluralistic system." But in the past he has expressed skepticism about pluralism.
He has described several branches of Christianity as "false religion." In an interview last summer, Robertson said, "Pluralism is the name given to the transition period from one orthodoxy to another . . . . Every other great nation has unified around some ethical standard. Lack of unity is a sign of ultimate destruction."
Robertson takes strikingly different approaches to different questions about his religious past.
It sometimes seems as if every reporter in the nation wants to ask him about the moment in 1985 when he said that the prayers he led prompted God to steer Hurricane Gloria away from Tidewater Virginia. The hurricane veered off. "It was a miracle," Robertson said on television the next day. Robertson deals with that question in an open, friendly way: "If a tornado were headed straight at your house," he says, "and you couldn't do anything but run down in the basement and wait for it to hit, wouldn't you say a prayer, I mean, 'God, spare us'? Well, that's what we did when these 175-mile-per-hour winds were bearing down on us."
In contrast, when asked about his stated belief that the Second Coming will occur in his lifetime, or that the Anti-Christ is alive in the world, or that Satan sometimes deceives him by mimicking the voice of God, Robertson often charges his questioner with "religious bigotry."
This response is partly strategic -- campaign aides have decided that Robertson's best defense on these grounds is a good offense. But it also reflects a hot-tempered candidate's genuine anger at any suggestion that he was just another television evangelist.
That is why Robertson invariably flares up when he is described as a "former TV evangelist." He feels that the term belittles him. "I have never been an evangelist," he says indignantly.
Robertson saw it differently when he wrote his autobiography in 1972. Describing a moment when he heard God tell him to carry Christ's message around the world, Robertson said, "I knew this was mother's dream, to evangelize the world for Jesus. And suddenly it became my vision, too . . . . And God was calling me to help bring it to pass."