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 either Bush or McCain. They're both good people," Rotton, of Spartanburg, said after services Sunday at the First Baptist Church, a sprawling 6,000-member megachurch that is the largest congregation in South Carolina and a nexus for the Christian right in this conservative region of the state.

Rotton isn't saying that either Bush or McCain is his dream candidate. Bush, for example, is not the abortion hard-liner many of his lesser rivals have been, and the Texas governor thinks the jury is still out on creationism--a tenet of faith for the biblical literalists at First Baptist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"They want to defeat Clinton-Gore," said Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., which studies the interplay of religion and politics. "Getting rid of the anti-Christ is what it is all about, and that's pretty much how they've seen them. That is why practical politics on the Christian side is outweighing ideological fervor in this round."

Given the premium conservative Christians put on ideological orthodoxy, this tilt toward political realism may seem an improbable evolution in their thinking. But it is also one experts say may wind up saving the Religious Right from itself.

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

Yet experts say most Christian conservatives are not ready to give up on politics, and their new pragmatism is evident in the long list of Republican fire-breathers who fizzled so dismally during this campaign basically 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 Ashcroft never got started. Orrin Hatch is long gone, as is New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith. Even Pat Buchanan bolted to the Reform Party rather than face another humbling at the hands of Republican voters.

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

That has left the Republican race a two-man contest, which at first pleased most Christian strategists who had lined up behind Bush with endorsements and an impressive grass-roots network of churches. South Carolina is one of a handful of states where the Christian Coalition remains strong--Reed figures the Coalition can count on more than 100,000 households with about 1.8 votes per household -in a primary where about 400,000 votes are expected to be cast.

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

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

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

The other obstacle for McCain is that the one thing he is zealous about--campaign finance reform--is the one thing the lobbies of the Christian right are dead set against because restricting campaign contributions would diminish their political leverage just as it would that of most other interest groups.

"For the right-to-life (anti-abortion) groups, McCain's opposition to soft money would impact their ability to affect the outcome of elections," said William Moore, a political scientist at the College of Charleston. As a result, Moore said, anti-abortion groups in South Carolina and in many other states are waging a full-scale media blitz against McCain and for Bush.

Despite this organized effort, however, many religious conservatives have not ruled out McCain.

"Before the New Hampshire primary, I was straight Bush," said Joe Coons, a hospital administrator from Boiling Springs. "But after New Hampshire, I started looking towards McCain, even though I'm still leaning towards Bush."

This uncertainty could spell big trouble for Bush, since McCain is also attracting Democrats and independents who are allowed to vote in this open primary, and Keyes is still managing to siphon off some of the bedrock Christian conservatives.

With many voters starkly dividing along lines of ideology and partisanship, Bush and McCain are battling to a standstill in the pivotal primary, a Los Angeles Times Poll has found.

Bush drew 42 percent in the survey and McCain 40 percent, a difference well within the poll's margin of error. Keyes lags with 5 percent.

The Times Poll surveyed 1,047 voters intending to vote in the South Carolina Republican primary; it has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. The survey was conducted Feb. 10-12.

But whatever the outcome of Saturday's primary, religious leaders in South Carolina and nationally vow that they will not disappear in November. They note conservative Christians still make up about 25 percent of the electorate, and in recent years this bloc has become more educated, more affluent and more conscious of its potential to affect the outcome of the national vote.

"I think that whoever it is--Bush or McCain--Christian conservatives will come out and vote for him, especially if the Democratic candidate is Gore," said the Rev. Al Phillips, an associate pastor at First Baptist who has been working actively on behalf of the Bush campaign. "We just don't want anyone who is connected with the Clinton administration and its sleaze."

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