New Orleans — AS the Republicans open their convention, a restless rumbling can be heard on the right. But not from the candidate that most set liberal and moderate teeth on edge this election, not from Pat Robertson.
The genial builder of a charismatic Christian empire clearly wants to build a profile as a mainstream figure in the GOP establishment. While other conservatives - and some in the Robertson ranks - threaten to fall out over signs of moderation in the Bush camp, Mr. Robertson is having none of it.
A political rookie, he has supercharged a disciplined national network of activists that vaulted him to some stunning early showings. But he is still toiling after broader political acceptability.
His visibility will be high here this week. He has a prime-time speaking slot Tuesday night. His campaign claims to have garnered thousands of spectator passes to the convention stands for Robertson supporters, who have been encouraged to journey here for the convention.
Although Robertson brought thousands of gung-ho activists into the Republican ranks around the nation, he brings to the convention only a small band of committed national delegates - about 120 of 2,277 total.
His clout on the right wing of the Republican Party does not compare with that of his counterpart on the left wing of the Democratic Party, Jesse Jackson.
Mr. Jackson succeeded in moving beyond his base of black voters to become the dominant voice of party progressives. Robertson, by most accounts, never succeeded in broadening his support beyond charismatic Christians.
Conservative Republicans still divide themselves into two distinct camps - the New Right, concerned chiefly with the worldly issues of economy and foreign policy, and the Christian Right, for which social issues top the agenda.
Even within the Christian Right, Robertson is not widely acknowledged as a spokesman outside charismatic circles - estimated at about a third of conservative Christians.
``Many evangelicals and fundamentalists were embarrassed by his campaign,'' says Paul Weyrich, a New Right lobbyist and organizer.
Robertson came close to breaking into a larger sphere of influence last February. After winning preliminary rounds of the delegate-selection process in several states, he triumphed in the Iowa caucuses. Southern fundamentalists - though not inclined to vote for preachers, much less a charismatic who spoke in tongues and practiced faith healing - were beginning to take him more seriously.
With the South Carolina primary approaching, and Super Tuesday tight on its heels, Robertson was approaching 20 percent in some Southern polls. Then he made some controversial comments, including accusing the Bush campaign of exposing the Jimmy Swaggart scandal in order to damage Robertson.
The comments fed the perception among voters outside his loyal flock that he was a religious leader unsteady in worldly affairs.
His poll ratings dropped back to about 5 percent almost overnight, says Mr. Weyrich. His campaign fared poorly in South Carolina and never recovered.
Now Robertson is back at the financially troubled Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), appearing and praying on its flagship show, the ``700 Club.''
``I think Pat has a problem,'' says Gary Jarmin, director of Christian Voice, a religious-right political organizing group. Does he want to be a political leader with a strong religious background or does he want to remain a religious leader who occasionally speaks out on political issues? ``He never resolved that identity crisis,'' Mr. Jarmin says.
Robertson still appears to be straddling his religious and political roles. He currently plans to stay full time at CBN, as well as campaigning actively this fall for George Bush and other Republican candidates, according to his press secretary, Barbara Gattullo.
Some convervatives, led by Sen. Gordon Humphrey of New Hampshire, threaten to nominate an alternative running mate this week, if Mr. Bush picks one whom they deem unacceptably liberal. Robertson rejects this approach. His message to his troops this week: Close ranks to elect George Bush, regardless of the running mate.
``We really think the Bush campaign has made every effort to include us and ask our opinion, and we think it's wonderful,'' says Ms. Gattullo.
Robertson is expected to give a big-picture speech Tuesday on the decay of America's moral fiber. He is also likely to exhort his supporters to remain active in Republican Party politics.
Most analysts say they believe that the Robertson activists are in the party to stay - with or without Robertson.
James Guth, a Furman University political scientist who has studied Robertson activists, says Robertson brought ``a significant but still fairly small addition of activists to the party core. That will persist.''
Indeed, Robertson activists have penetrated deeply into many state and local party organizations. Robertson's campaign chairman in Nevada is now state party chairman. Robertson campaigners also dominate the national delegations this week of Alaska, Georgia, Hawaii, and Washington.
Although Robertson never finished prominently in a primary, his followers often dominated caucuses through diligent organizing efforts.
In most cases, the Robertson newcomers are being peacefully integrated into the ranks of the GOP leadership. There are some glaring exceptions.
The bitterness of Robertson supporters in Michigan, where they were outmaneuvered by the Bush and Kemp campaigns, is so deep that some are supporting Libertarian Party candidate Ron Paul in protest against Bush.
A dispute between a Robertson delegation from Georgia and one selected by party regulars was settled by the Republican National Committee last week. The compromise favors the Robertson camp roughly 28 delegates to 20.
Defeat has not disillusioned the Robertson troops. Most insist they are driven by issues, not by Robertson. ``I do not think this is a thing that has happened once and will disappear,'' says Carter Wrenn, director of the National Congressional Club, a conservative fund-raising group.
Robertson ``has the great potential of being quite a leader,'' Mr. Weyrich says, if he campaigns hard this fall for other candidates, shows longevity and seriousness, and begins to expand his base.
``If Bush loses this fall,'' notes Hubert Morken, a political scientist at Oral Roberts University, ``Robertson will be very strongly in position to run again.''