GOP Wages War at Grass Roots

Christian Coalition uses its organizational muscle to back family issues, while rival Republican Majority Coalition wants issues such as abortion, gay rights out of politics

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

`THERE'S a battle going on for what the Republican Party will be," says former Sen. Warren Rudman (R) of New Hampshire. The fight, he says, is over whether such social issues as abortion and gay rights will form a central part of the Republican message.

In the past, such a debate might have been decided in the proverbial smoke-filled back rooms. But in the age of Ross Perot, social issues are the subject of a heated duel in grass-roots organizing between the Republican Majority Coalition (RMC) - a group of centrist Republicans, including Mr. Rudman - and the Christian Coalition, a group founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson that speaks for many on the Christian Right.

In this battle, the Christian Coalition has an edge in experience - it has been around since 1988, while the RMC was founded in January - and organizational muscle. Ralph Reed, the coalition's boyish-looking executive director, reels off a series of numbers demonstrating his group's reach: 250,000 dues-paying members, a mailing list of 2.2 million names, and 60,000 churches the group communicates with. "We expect to double our membership this year," Mr. Reed boasts.

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So far, most Christian Coalition activities have been targeted at local politics. For instance, the group often holds "Leadership Schools" to teach activists how to get involved in neighborhood politics. In 1992, coalition activists ran in some 500 United States elections for such policymaking bodies as school boards and city councils; they won 40 percent of the races, according to People for the American Way, a liberal lobbying group. Recently, coalition foot soldiers played a major role in backing a co nservative slate of candidates in New York City school-board elections held May 4.

Now the Christian Coalition has moved onto the national scene. Earlier this year, the group opened a three-person lobbying office in a redbrick town house a few blocks from the US Capitol. "We're doing the Lord's work in the devil's city," cracks Marshall Wittmann, the coalition's director of legislative affairs.

Mr. Wittmann sees his primary job as keeping the group's members informed about its top-priority issues, which this year are supporting a balanced-budget constitutional amendment and family tax relief while opposing the Freedom of Choice bill. When it comes to lobbying, the organizational prowess of the Virginia Beach, Va.-based group takes over.

The Christian Coalition, for example, recently mailed 3.2 million "congressional scorecards" telling supporters how their congressmen have voted on "family issues." On issues the coalition deems important, it will send an "action alert" to members, asking them to contact their lawmakers to express their views. To expedite this lobbying, Reed says, "We're in the process of building a massive fax network that will connect 10,000 activists to their congressmen by the end of the year."

Much of the money to support this political organizing comes from the sort of aggressive direct-mail fund-raising that Moral Majority and other Christian Right groups pioneered in the early 1980s. The average gift to the Christian Coalition, Reed says, is $19. The coalition's budget last year was $8.4 million; this year, its goal is to raise $11 million.

The success of the Christian Coalition and other Christian Right groups has alarmed pro-choice Republicans. Many within the GOP - including its former chairman, Rich Bond - blamed the prominence of evangelicals at the 1992 Houston convention for George Bush's defeat in November.

In an attempt to counter the Christian Right's influence, a group of middle-of-the-road Republicans - including former Rep. Tom Campbell of California, Sen. Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, and industrialist David Packard - formed the RMC. "We'd like to change the background music of the next convention," Rudman says, by having the party not take a stand on abortion and other social issues. "Social issues are volatile and emotional. They touch on religious beliefs, they're not rational. They're things you shou ld keep out of politics."

So far, however, even Rudman concedes that the RMC has not done much to accomplish its goals. The group's launch received a fair amount of publicity, but, Rudman says, "The announcement was premature." Since January, the RMC has organized a forum on the future of the Republican Party, to be held May 10 at the National Press Club here; mailed out some initial fund-raising letters; and recruited volunteer coordinators in Iowa and New Hampshire. But that's about it.

The RMC's national chairman, Mr. Campbell, is back in California, teaching at Stanford University Law School. Holding down the fort in Washington is Bob Myerson, a recent college graduate who works for no pay as RMC executive director. He hopes to raise $250,000 this year to pay for the group's activities. "We don't have a Washington office yet. We're working out of my apartment," Mr. Myerson says. "But I'm hoping we'll get out of here soon and get an office downtown."

While the RMC's slow start up is not necessarily a sign of disaster, many conservative Republicans are skeptical that the group will ever get off the launch pad. The RMC, they argue, is too liberal for most Republicans and is better at generating media attention than grass-roots organizing. House minority whip Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia flatly predicts, "The Republican Majority Coalition will fail."

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