BATON ROUGE, LA., FEB. 27 -- Republican presidential candidate Pat Robertson, who less than a week ago accused Vice President Bush's campaign of engineering the release of information about the sexual misconduct of television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, made an unscheduled detour on a campaign swing today to offer his support to Swaggart at a brief airport news conference here.
"Jimmy has confessed to a moral problem," Robertson said. "He has asked for forgiveness, and I believe that God has forgiven him. Today, I publicly take this opportunity to extend Christian love and support for Jimmy."
Swaggart was not present at Robertson's news conference, but Robertson said that the two had talked twice by telephone today and agreed that a visit to Swaggart's home would attract too much news media attention. Swaggart has been in seclusion at his Baton Rouge home since he made his tearful confession last week.
Robertson and the aides traveling with him took some pains to obscure plans for the unusual side trip to Louisiana, which occurred late in a day of campaigning in Texas and Arkansas. Later, however, they said that Baton Rouge was merely a convenient stopover on the way to Alabama from Texas and that it would have been "an act of cowardice" not to rally around Swaggart.
Swaggart was suspended from preaching in the Assemblies of God denomination for three months after details of his rendezvous with a prostitute came to light last Sunday. Church elders are considering harsher penalties.
Swaggart was host of a popular television show that has been carried by the Christian Broadcasting Network, where Robertson once hosted "The 700 Club" religious program. He is also the president of the Baton Rouge-based Jimmy Swaggart Ministries, which employs 1,500 local residents.
Swaggart announced last year that he would support Robertson's candidacy for president, and Robertson said today that was part of the reason he returned to support Swaggart.
"In Christianity, we don't shoot our wounded," Robertson said. Robertson also appreciates the strength of evangelical voters, many of them intensely committed newcomers to party politics who have aided his cause in Iowa, South Dakota and Minnesota.
"In my estimation, reaching out a hand of love to somebody who needs love and support is a moral act," said Robertson, who has campaigned on a theme that America is in need of moral renewal.
Robertson's calculated decision to embrace Swaggart came after a week in which Robertson was questioned repeatedly about his opinion of the Swaggart scandal. He initially refused to comment on the episode, but then said that the timing of the revelations could not have been a coincidence and that he would not put it past the Bush campaign to have orchestrated the release of such information.
But today, Robertson backed as far away as possible from those allegations, choosing instead to offer an olive branch to Bush, who had challenged Robertson to prove his accusations.
"While we're in an attitude of reconciliation, I think it might be appropriate to ask for reconciliation between me and George Bush," he said. "I don't wish to have any confusion or animosity between us."
The continuing Swaggart controversy came to light just as Robertson, himself a former television evangelist, has been seeking to broaden his candidacy enough to assure significant victories on "Super Tuesday," March 8, when 17 states hold Republican primaries and caucuses. In speech after speech this weekend, he has cast Bush as his chief target in those contests, not even mentioning Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) or Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.).
He said today that the political risks of embracing Swaggart at this time "are enormous." But Robertson and his aides sought to portray today's announcement as an act of moral compassion for a fallen brother that was made without regard for its political consequences.
"I know he's not looking at it from a political side," said Richard Martin, Robertson's Texas state chairman. "He's looking at it from a human side."