Orlando, Fla. — Pat Robertson is making believers out of many Republicans. Once sloughed off as a political neophyte, he has steadily gained credibility in recent weeks for his presidential campaign.
Mr. Robertson's aides say his grass-roots effort is closely following his game plan, which calls for a network of millions of supporters in all 50 states.
``Robertson's a master of organization,'' admits Lee Atwater, campaign manager for Vice-President George Bush. ``I haven't seen anything like this since George McGovern [the Democratic nominee in 1972].''
Over the weekend, Robertson gave Mr. Bush and the other GOP contenders another hard lesson in political organizing.
Robertson finished a strong second (behind Bush) in a straw poll at the Florida Republican state convention - even though most of the party regulars were against him.
Robertson's wildly enthusiastic partisans, decked out at the convention in red, white, and blue T-shirts and hats, roared approval for their hero, who railed against communism, abortion, liberals, and homosexuality.
Robertson's hard-line approach has already helped him ambush the GOP front-runners in Iowa, where he won an earlier straw poll, and Michigan, where he came in first in local caucuses.
John Davis, a political aide to Sen. Robert Dole, says the perception of Robertson is quickly changing. Two months ago, Mr. Davis says, political insiders assumed that Robertson was in the race just to prove a point - namely, that the party must pay more attention to evangelical conservatives. But now, Davis says, ``I think he's really running for president.''
But Robertson's better-than-expected performance could be trouble for the GOP. Already there is talk of bad feelings between party regulars and Robertson's forces. At the conference here, some delegates were seen wearing ``A.R.B.R.'' buttons: Any Republican But Robertson.
Richard Pinsky, national field director for Robertson, says the Christian broadcaster is ``running a campaign unlike every other campaign before us.''
In an interview at his office in Chesapeake, Va., Mr. Pinsky noted that an estimated 13.5 million Republicans are expected to participate in next year's presidential primaries and caucuses.
Robertson's strategy is straightforward. He is trying to organize 7 million Republicans who will support him. If he can, he wins the nomination, Pinksy says.
Already, Robertson has signed up about half that number. Pinsky says he has names, addresses, and telephone numbers for every one of those voters.
``That's why we have been successful in the caucuses so far,'' Pinsky says.
``We're going to compete for every single delegate and every single vote. In all 50 states we have reached at least 30 percent of our goal, and in some we are doing a lot better than that,'' Pinsky says.
But Mr. Atwater of the Bush campaign says Robertson's political appeal is yet to be tested with the electorate at large. All of Robertson's success so far has come in contests where a few hundred people were decisive.
Senator Dole makes the same point. He told reporters here: ``In caucus states, Pat Robertson could do quite well. In primary states, it will be more difficult for him.''
That view is supported by pollsters. Although Robertson has done well in early skirmishing, he runs only third, fourth, or fifth in most national polls. Gallup polls, for example, have consistently shown Bush with about 40 percent. In second place has been Dole with close to 20 percent. US Rep. Jack Kemp has been third with about 9 or 10 percent. And Robertson has been fourth or fifth, alternating with Alexander Haig, although Robertson's overall support has been gradually climbing.
Yet Robertson's showing in Florida, Iowa, and Michigan has waved a yellow caution flag at the front-runners. The final tally here: Bush, 1,322 votes (57 percent); Robertson, 849 (37 percent); Kemp, 64 (3 percent); others, 1 percent or less. Only Bush and Robertson made an all-out effort to get votes here.
Robertson's showing was even stronger than it appeared. About 40 percent of the delegates to the Florida convention were party officials and major contributors, who were automatically given seats. They were almost all for Bush. Robertson had to fight for his votes among the 60 percent chosen at county caucus meetings. He got about half of the delegates chosen that way.
``We're ecstatic,'' said Marc Nuttle, campaign manager for Robertson. ``Six months ago, nobody would have believed we'd do this.''
Pinsky emphasizes that Robertson's political success has come the hard way: with expensive organizing at the grass roots.
Says Senator Dole: ``Robertson is obviously in the race to stay. He's going into the [national] convention with delegates.''