VIRGINIA BEACH, Va., Nov. 3 (RNS)-- He may be the prime suspect in the death of the religious right, but Pat Robertson isn't about to let all the accusations -- much less a guilty conscience -- keep him up at night.

"The Bible says, `If a man's ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him,"' the televangelist says, quoting Proverbs and flashing a smile that somehow manages to project "aw shucks" and ambition at the same time.

Robertson is sitting in a wingback chair in his office, a tastefully appointed room that is the command center of an empire consisting of equal parts gospel, big business and Republican politics.

On the walls are photos of Robertson with pols and potentates, plus framed tabloid headlines from Robertson's 1988 run for the GOP nomination.

That campaign flamed out, but from its ashes Robertson raised up the Christian Coalition, a grass-roots lobby that for nearly a decade harnessed the rage and frustration of the Christian right and made Robertson one of the most feared -- and loathed -- figures in American politics.

"I try my best to please other people," the preacher insists. "But," he adds, "that is secondary."

At this point, that is probably a smart strategy for Robertson. With the presidential election coming down to the wire, the Christian Coalition is missing in political action, and it couldn't come at a worse time.

In the past, the coalition was able to mobilize thousands of voters to provide critical margins in key swing states. Indeed, until two years ago, the Christian Coalition had been the main organizing force behind the religious right, the most important conservative political movement of the last generation.

Its failure at this juncture is a bitter pill for Christian conservatives who have waited eight long years to put an end to the era of the despised Bill Clinton and his proxy, Al Gore, and the target of their outrage is clear.

"Pat, in my eyes, is the Jim Bakker of the religious political scene," says Paul Nagy, a former Robertson aide and moral conservative who recently worked as a political consultant for Steve Forbes. "He's about power and ego. I think there is a lot of guilt in Pat Robertson because he's not the man he thinks he is.

"I wouldn't go so far as to say he's not a Christian, but he's not my kind of Christian. And that really bothers me."

If such judgments sound harsh, consider that they are coming not from Robertson's usual critics on the left, but from the likes of Nagy and Marshall Wittman, a former Christian Coalition strategist who is now at the conservative Hudson Institute.

"If you are going to speak the truth to power, you corrupt yourself by becoming beholden to power," Wittman says.

In reality, several of the factors behind the decline of the religious right as a cohesive force, and of the Christian Coalition as its mouthpiece, were beyond Robertson's control.

For one thing, the evangelical political movement is a bit long in the tooth, in sociological terms.

"The Christian right as a social movement lasted two decades -- they're old," says John Green of the University of Akron and a leading expert on the religious right.

Green and others say the white evangelicals who are the core of the Christian right are making more sophisticated political choices today. Having been led from their self-imposed exile in the political wilderness, these conservative Christians are now more experienced in public life, more independent and less willing to vote the way Robertson, or anyone else, says.

"The religious right landscape in America is in great flux," says Green. "They have a much broader view of what politics is all about. They still tend to vote Republican, but they're not clearly so partisan. They expect candidates to seek their support, but they won't automatically give it."

In another sense, Robertson and others like him are victims of their own impressive successes over the past decade, especially their critical role in the stunning Republican takeover of Capitol Hill in 1994, forming the first all-GOP Congress in 40 years.

With that victory came a measure of complacency among evangelical voters. At the same time, Christian right operatives, once outsiders, were being integrated into the political establishment.

"When you are entrenched in the institutions, who needs the Christian Coalition?" says Green.

With that political evolution, however, came a sobering dose of political reality. Christian conservatives did not see the payoff that Robertson had been holding out to them in exchange for their efforts.

"All of the stated objectives of the religious right -- from ending abortion to cleaning up television to restoring family life -- have not been advanced one iota," says Cal Thomas, the columnist whose 1999 book, "Blinded by Might," criticized his fellow religious conservatives for selling their souls for political influence.

But the main reason for the political decline of religious conservative power, critics say, is the decline of the Christian Coalition, whose troubles can be laid at Robertson's feet.

The first signs of trouble started emerging early last year, when news reports revealed the vaunted lobby -- which in 1996 claimed 2.8 million members and a $26.5 million annual budget -- was $2.5 million in debt and had strong affiliates in only seven states, not 48 as once claimed.

The names of thousands of dead people were being kept on the rolls to inflate membership figures, and when journalists visited the Virginia headquarters, coalition officials hired temporary workers and leapfrogged them ahead of the observers to give the appearance of a busy office.

Also in 1999, the Internal Revenue Service denied the Christian Coalition's efforts to win tax-exempt status, saying it worked on behalf of the Republican Party.

Many observers initially traced the start of the decline to the defection of Robertson's savvy lieutenant, Ralph Reed, in 1997 to become a political consultant.

For some, the loss of Reed's expertise wasn't as critical as the opening that his departure made for Robertson, who could not resist the temptation to reassert control.

He wrote a million-dollar check to help the coalition out of a growing money squeeze, but then he insisted on editing and directing a major fund-raising campaign that bombed, as aides told him it would. It cost the organization a half-million dollars and was indicative of how badly the Christian Coalition's fund-raising machine was broken.

Meanwhile, the two men hired to replace Reed -- Don Hodel, a former Reagan Cabinet officer, and Randy Tate, a former Republican congressman -- were trying to make the coalition more professional and issue-oriented, like the National Rifle Association or the AFL-CIO, and less personality-driven -- the personality being Pat Robertson's.

And Pat Robertson didn't cotton to that.

"He wants to do it on his own," says one former official, who still considers Robertson "brilliant," but flawed. "He is a polarizing figure."

Robertson, who this year turned 70 -- his biblical term limit of three score and 10 years -- appears as fit as ever.

Many people think that if Bush wins on Nov. 7, Robertson could simply declare victory and ride off into the sunset, his 10-year plan a success.

"Assuming that Mr. Bush wins, with his testimony of faith, I think we can say we've done what we set out to do," Robertson says. He speaks with manifest satisfaction, but also softly and plainly; he has no need to boast. To him, the record speaks loud and clear.

Then again, he also knows that a Bush loss could work out just as well, at least for Pat Robertson.

"Sometimes it's more difficult to have a friendly administration than to have an administration with which you are fighting," he says. "Because people go to sleep when they have their friends in office. They figure they've done their job and they can get a little lax.

"Whereas if there's a perceived adversary, then they wake up."

Pat Robertson pauses at the prospect and smiles.

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