PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 1 (RNS)--In 1992, conservative firebrand Pat Buchanan used the Houston Republican Convention to dispatch an army of evangelical Christians in his take-no-prisoners "culture war."
In 1996, fresh from the Newt Gingrich-led sweep of Congress, the convention floor in San Diego was a sea of "I Love Newt" signs. Evangelicals again flexed their muscles and refused to surrender the party's anti-abortion platform plank. Bob Dole grudgingly conceded.
This year in Philadelphia, Buchanan is gone, Gingrich is gone and the other icons of the formidable religious right--Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes--have hardly been seen.
It's not that they weren't invited--they were just told not to speak.
Worried that the hard-line religious right could hamper Texas Gov. George W. Bush's appeal to the middle, Republican leaders have carefully kept Robertson and Falwell behind the scenes and out of the spotlight.
"They have been given the word, `Don't get anywhere near us. You're radioactive,"' said conservative columnist Cal Thomas.
Surprisingly, Robertson and Co. have quietly acquiesced.
Fueling the strategy on both sides is a relentless hunger to take back the White House. Conservatives feel it is better to sit quietly for now, rather than make a fuss and alienate enough voters to usher in a Gore administration.
The dirty-laundry primary battles of the past have largely been avoided this year. The party will leave Philadelphia with a somewhat kinder, gentler platform while conservatives can claim victory for retaining strong language against abortion.
Bush, a political pragmatist, wants to win. Badly. The conservatives also want to win, mostly to have an ally in the Oval Office who can deliver rewards for 20 years of loyalty.
In short, Bush needs them as much as they need him.
While Bush has talked openly about his Christian faith, he has largely kept the Christian right at arm's length--working with them, but not necessarily embracing them. And while Bush may not be their dream candidate, the religious right has realized such a candidate could probably never get elected.
"It's not that these people aren't playing a major role, but now it's behind the scenes and they see themselves as team players rather than opponents or critics," said Professor John Green of the University of Akron, who has studied the religious right.
Surveys show at least one-third of the Philadelphia delegates identify themselves as Christian evangelicals, and Green's surveys indicate evangelical voters are supporting Bush three to one over Al Gore.
As the base of the Republican Party support, the Christian right is a must-win for Bush. In many ways, Bush owes his nomination to religious conservatives, who voted en masse in the South Carolina primary to squash Sen. John McCain's insurgent campaign.
The main objective for Bush now is to be supported by, but not be beholden to, the religious right.
And it seems to be working. Green draws a distinction between "traditional" evangelicals of the Jerry Falwell variety and "non-traditional" evangelicals who may share the views but maybe not the zealous fervor.
In 1996, Dole carried 74 percent of traditional evangelicals, but actually lost the more moderate evangelicals to Bill Clinton. So far, Bush is already pulling 63 percent of moderate Christians.
Falwell, the mighty political kingmaker of the 1980s, said the younger Bush is the first Republican that conservatives have been "energized" about since Ronald Reagan.
"George W. Bush is going to activate a lot of apathetic religious conservatives," Falwell said. "Our people sort of went `ho-hum' with Bob Dole. They liked him, but they couldn't get excited about him."
Another major factor in this year's convention is the crumbling of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition. After the 1996 election debacle, the coalition's wonder-boy leader, Ralph Reed, left for a more lucrative career in consulting. Robertson has tried to get the organization back on course, but an Internal Revenue Service ruling stripping the coalition of its tax-exempt status didn't help.
At Robertson's patriotic pep rally on Tuesday (Aug. 1), more than 1,000 enthusiastic supporters packed a hotel ballroom and greeted him with hoots and whistles. Borrowing the words of Mark Twain, Robertson said reports of the Christian Coalition's demise have been premature.
"I'm amused by reports that say the Christian Coalition and the religious right are dead," Robertson said. "Well, someone ought to go tell the Philadelphia Fire Department that the largest ballroom at the Marriott was full with corpses. My friends, we're just getting started."
Evangelical delegates say Robertson's and Falwell's low profiles in Philadelphia do not reflect badly on the movement. Dee Benedict, a former Christian Coalition leader in South Carolina, said evangelicals have become so mature, so sophisticated, that the delegates no longer need a cheerleader.
"It's not a place at the table (we're looking for)," Benedict said. "George W. Bush is the table, he's one of us. We've got the table. We just don't need to slam people over the head with it."