Nearly a year ago, Free Congress Foundation president Paul Weyrich issued a letter to fellow conservative Christians declaring that evangelicals had lost the culture war. They should, he said, withdraw from politics and go back to saving souls.

Two months later, Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, both former associates of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, published a book entitled "Blinded By Might" in which they, too, called for conservative Christians to exit the national political scene.

And so, many observers expected religious conservatives to be less important in the Iowa caucuses this year than in the past. Polls and interviews before the caucuses--the first step in the Presidential nomination process--suggested religious conservatives were disillusioned with politics and poorly organized, and thus less likely to participate.

These predictions underestimated the zeal and resources of the religious right.

This week, they turned out in numbers equal to 1996, powering Steve Forbes' strong second place finish and Alan Keyes' third place showing. Perhaps most important, they provided George W. Bush with his margin of victory.

According to poll data, Bush received a little less than one-third of his support from conservative Christians. He received 33 percent of the religious right vote, besting Steve Forbes (27 percent), Alan Keyes (23 percent), and Gary Bauer (16 percent), all of whom based their strategies on support from religious conservatives.

And that suggests that the religious right is still potent, despite its recent problems and disappointments.

If so, religious conservatives may hamper the Republican's efforts to regain the White House.

That is because George W. Bush may be pulled further to the right on social issues, such as abortion, and the GOP may face continued cultural divisions within its ranks. On the other hand, the religious right may mobilize millions of voters for Republicans in the general election

According to the Voter News Service (VNS) "entrance" poll (conducted as respondents entered the caucus sites), self-described members of the "religious right" made up 37 percent of Republican caucus participants. This was the same percentage as the VNS entrance poll found in 1996. Because overall turnout was down, roughly 4,000 fewer religious conservatives participated in the 2000 caucuses than in 1996--but roughly 4,000 more than in 1988, when Pat Robertson shocked the nation with his second place Iowa finish.

If you crunch this year's numbers further, two important patterns emerge.

First, for Forbes, religious conservatives made the difference between his expected (20 percent) and actual showing (30 percent) in the caucuses, thus helping him become one of the Iowa "winners." Religious conservatives also provided Bush with his margin of victory over Forbes. In fact, without the religious right, Bush would have received 30 percent rather than 41 percent of the vote.

These figures provide some insight into the dynamics of the Republican nomination contest.

Bush has tried to appeal to the religious right without alienating other Republicans. But he will have to withstand criticism from Forbes and Keyes, who will keep up the pressure from the right; meanwhile, John McCain (who did not campaign in Iowa) will offer a stiff challenge from the "left" in next week's New Hampshire primary.

And there is an important, cautionary, figure embedded in these statistics: although Bush finished first among voters who stressed "moral values," he was nearly last among those who gave abortion top priority.

Those voters migrated to Keyes and Bauer.

A second pattern is the contrast with the 1996 caucuses. This year, the religious right was divided among several candidates.

Four years ago, Pat Buchanan was the big winner, capturing better than two-fifths of religious conservatives, enough for a second place finish. Front-runner Bob Dole received less than one-fifth of the religious right vote, while Keyes (one-eighth) and Forbes (one-twentieth) did poorly.

This year, the religious right was divided among more candidates. The combined vote for Keyes and Bauer (about one-quarter of the total) equaled the strength of Robertson in 1988 and Buchanan in 1996. In addition, religious conservatives provided critical votes for Bush and Forbes.

The results reveal the evolution of the religious right. After all, it was in Iowa that Robertson's "invisible army" first made its appearance against then-Vice President George Bush. This constituency resurfaced in Buchanan's 1996 challenge to then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.

In 2000, religious conservatives backed both insurgents and the establishment candidate, suggesting they have become a fixture in Republican politics.

These numbers also highlight the frustrations of the religious right: despite their strengths, religious conservatives are still a minority in the Republican coalition, and a divided one at that.

Had the religious right gotten behind a single candidate, he might have finished first in the caucuses.

Some religious conservatives backed Bush because they wanted a general election winner; others worked for Keyes and Bauer to advance a narrow cultural agenda; and still others supported Forbes because of his synthesis of economic and cultural conservatism.

If observers underestimated the influence of the religious right, then history cautions against overstating its power. Neither Robertson nor Buchanan won the GOP presidential nomination, and their campaigns may have harmed the party at the polls.

Steve Forbes or Alan Keyes and candidates like them will always need more than the religious right to secure the nomination. This visible army is a key Republican constituency--but only one of many.

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