SPARTANBURG, S.C., Feb. 16 (RNS)--With John McCain and George W. Bush locked in a primary battle that looks like it will go down to the wire, conservative Christians like Barry Rotton are happy that, for a change, they're the only ones who can't lose.

"If November was tomorrow, I wouldn't have a problem with eitherBush or McCain. They're both good people," Rotton, of Spartanburg, saidafter services Sunday at the First Baptist Church, a sprawling6,000-member megachurch that is the largest congregation in SouthCarolina and a nexus for the Christian right in this conservative regionof the state.

Rotton isn't saying that either Bush or McCain is his dreamcandidate. Bush, for example, is not the abortion hard-liner many of hislesser rivals have been, and the Texas governor thinks the jury is stillout on creationism--a tenet of faith for the biblical literalists atFirst Baptist.

And McCain isn't perfect. The Arizona senator is divorced, he iseven more suspect on abortion than Bush, and he has his own wild youthto repent for.

But for Rotton and dozens of other churchgoers interviewed thisweek, Bush and McCain are perfectly acceptable: Both speak more openlyabout Jesus than any viable GOP candidate in years, both exude a senseof probity, and, just as important, both are seen as having an appealbroad enough to prevail in the general election in November.

"We have learned our lesson," Rotton said. "For a conservative towin this time, there has to be one candidate that we can all unitebehind who can win everything non-Democratic."

Welcome to the new Religious Right--chastened by defeat, tired ofgoing down the blind alley of third-party candidacies, and ready to playa major role in the 2000 campaign here in the Bible Belt and in thegeneral election this fall, even if that means exhibiting a ratherClintonian eagerness to compromise.

"There is an increasing level of sophistication and maturity on thepart of socially conservative voters," said Ralph Reed, the onetimeleader of the Christian Coalition who is now a GOP consultant workingfor Bush. "We want someone who embraces our principles, but we also wantsomeone who can win."

And more than just winning, they want someone who can vanquish thelegacy of Bill Clinton, a man the Christian right considers a disgrace.

"They want to defeat Clinton-Gore," said Andrew Kohut of the PewResearch Center in Washington, D.C., which studies the interplay ofreligion and politics. "Getting rid of the anti-Christ is what it is allabout, and that's pretty much how they've seen them. That is whypractical politics on the Christian side is outweighing ideologicalfervor in this round."

Given the premium conservative Christians put on ideologicalorthodoxy, this tilt toward political realism may seem an improbableevolution in their thinking. But it is also one experts say may wind upsaving the Religious Right from itself.

In recent years, many inside and outside the movement had begun todiscount the power of the organized Christian right, arguing the GOPtakeover of Congress in 1994 was a high-water mark followed by a seriesof disappointments and that Newt Gingrich and his allies failed to makelaws out of any of the initiatives Christian conservatives held dear.

Yet experts say most Christian conservatives are not ready to giveup on politics, and their new pragmatism is evident in the long list ofRepublican fire-breathers who fizzled so dismally during this campaignbasically because conservatives saw they had no real chance.

Gary Bauer--who has thrown his support, limited as it may be, to McCain--and Steve Forbes are the latest casualties. John Ashcroftnever got started. Orrin Hatch is long gone, as is New Hampshire Sen.Bob Smith. Even Pat Buchanan bolted to the Reform Party rather than faceanother humbling at the hands of Republican voters.

Only Alan Keyes continues his moral crusade, but with poll numbersso low he barely qualifies as a spoiler.

That has left the Republican race a two-man contest, which at firstpleased most Christian strategists who had lined up behind Bush withendorsements and an impressive grass-roots network of churches. SouthCarolina is one of a handful of states where the Christian Coalitionremains strong--Reed figures the Coalition can count on more than100,000 households with about 1.8 votes per household -in a primarywhere about 400,000 votes are expected to be cast.

"Anyone who doesn't think that evangelical Christians can becomfortable with George W. Bush are probably thinking about other peoplenamed Bush," Tucker Eskew, a spokesman for Bush's South Carolinacampaign, said in an undisguised swipe at the candidate's father, anEpiscopalian who never earned the confidence of the Christian right.

The younger Bush's appeal to the Religious Right, especially inSouth Carolina, goes beyond strictly religious issues.

"Bush's advantage is that he is much more culturally compatible withSouthern Baptists" than McCain, said James L. Guth, a politicalscientist at Furman University in Greenville. "George speaks with aTexas accent. He talks the language they talk, and they feel comfortablewith that."

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