Pat Robertson, president of the besieged Christian Coalition, came close to endorsing Texas Gov. George W. Bush's bid for the Republican presidential nomination yesterday, while virtually writing off the bid of conservative activist Gary Bauer.
"I think [Bush] would be a very acceptable candidate," Robertson said in an interview during the coalition's annual "Road to Victory" conference here. "We had lunch together and talked about issues. I think he's a solid guy. I think he'd make a good president."
Later, at a news conference, Robertson said: "So far, George Bush said things that have led me to believe he would be worthy of the support of the coalition were he the nominee of the party."
Robertson said magazine publisher Steve Forbes, whom Robertson has forgiven for calling him a "toothy flake" during the 1996 campaign, is the only alternative to Bush who is financially equipped to pay the huge, early costs of primaries in such megastates as New York and California. But, he added, "the president is a chief executive. . . . Forbes has run a good-sized business, but he has never run a public organization. He would have a much better chance, I would think, had he been a governor of a state, held some office."
Six GOP presidential candidates appeared at the 10th anniversary gathering of the coalition yesterday, and a seventh, Forbes, is scheduled to appear today. Arizona Sen. John McCain declined an invitation, citing a scheduling conflict.
The past year has been brutal for Robertson, the coalition and allied organizations.
Facing a near-certain adverse ruling from the IRS, the coalition withdrew a long-standing request for tax-exempt status. Former staff members have charged that the coalition used inflated membership numbers, and current officials acknowledge that state organizations have badly deteriorated, as have contribution levels. Separately, the Bank of Scotland withdrew from a financial arrangement with Robertson after he complained that "in Scotland, you can't believe how strong the homosexuals are."
In his speech at the opening of the two-day conference, Robertson attacked both Republican congressional leaders for failing to demonstrate courage, and President Clinton for lowering the moral standards of the country.
"I speak now to our Republican friends in Congress. We helped you to be elected. Now we ask for principled leadership. We ask for courage. We ask you to remember it is better to lose fighting a noble cause than to live in peace as a coward," Robertson told the cheering gathering of about 3,000.
In terms of picking a president to replace Clinton, Robertson said, "As we prepare for a new millennium, I want to start with cleansing the highest office of the land from the sleaze and the equivocation and the moral rot which has embarrassed us all."
Bush, who drew a large press following, altered his stump speech for the audience. Generally, he has avoided talking about abortion, and his reluctance has been a sore spot among some conservatives.
But yesterday, Bush stressed his record on abortion, including his opposition to late-term abortion and support for parental notification. "When a child is in crisis, a parent should know," he said. On a larger scale, he said, "We should have this goal: Every child, born and unborn, must be protected by law and welcomed into life."
Robertson set a very uncomfortable stage for Bauer. He told reporters in interviews that Bauer's attempt to build on a base of social conservatives does not appear to have a chance, and he suggested that Bauer committed major errors in handling staff complaints that he failed to live up to an unwritten code of conduct for Christian leaders by meeting behind closed doors with a 27-year-old campaign aide.
"I had a whole course in pastoral conduct, and they said there are three rules. One, never be alone in a room with a woman not your wife. Number two, never be alone in a room with a woman not your wife, and number three, never be alone in a room with a woman not your wife."
Bauer attempted to take on the controversy directly. He was introduced by his wife, Carol, who called him a "wonderful and faithful husband." Bauer, she said, has been the "target of a campaign of lies and innuendo, none of it true. It has been a living hell, quite frankly."
In his speech, Bauer received strong applause when he said: "My judges are going to understand that marriage is between a man and a woman, not two men."
Other speakers yesterday included Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Alan Keyes and Elizabeth Dole, who stressed her religious faith.
Among coalition members attending the conference, there seemed to be no consensus on the best candidate.
Peter Redpath, a 26-year-old Baylor University law student, is undecided but liked Hatch's critique of "the problems with the judiciary." Antiabortion candidates who criticize Bush are wrong, he added, because, "if you look at Bush's record in Texas and his actions, clearly he's pro-life."
Barbara J. Penberth, of Bethlehem, Pa., said the one candidate who has impressed her is Forbes, "whose banner has flown very high with me. I've been very impressed by him." Frank Barner of Purceville, Va., wrote off Forbes and Bush as "the most establishment candidates,"--the guys most likely to just tell people what they want to hear. He said the two candidates with the best messages are Bauer and Keyes.
But it was Tony Caruso, of Waltham, Mass., who summed up the views of many here when he said that as he looks to the 2000 election, he has one major issue: "This time, I'm going for the win, which is Bush. There are candidates here and everywhere that are more conservative than he is. But I want to get the veto pen."