How far Bush will go on conservative agenda

When the new Congress meets, Bush will have to satisfy the Christian right - without seeming their captive.

For over a decade, Christian conservatives have served as loyal foot soldiers of the Republican Party, manning phone banks and getting out the vote.

Now it's payback time. When the new Congress convenes in January, Republicans will control both houses - and the nation's policy agenda. For religious conservatives, this bodes well for progress on issues such as abortion, cloning, and school vouchers. Perhaps most important to this key constituency, the path is now clear for Senate approval of conservative federal judges around the country.

For President Bush, the challenge is obvious: to satisfy his activist base while keeping mainstream Republicans happy. He wants no rerun of May 2001, when the moderate Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont quit the Republicans and threw control of the Senate to the Democrats.

Two days after last month's midterm elections, the White House stressed to social conservatives in a conference call that their issues can't come first. "The White House is definitely sympathetic and has bent over backwards to make their support clear," says Deal Hudson, editor of the Catholic magazine Crisis,and a participant in the call. "On the other hand, it's not going to have its own chronology or calendar dictated by their concerns."

Some anti-abortion groups will be suspicious if they perceive a delay in bringing forward legislation to ban "partial-birth" abortions. But overall, Bush enjoys wide support from Christian conservatives. He is open about his own faith and seems comfortable in a world that seeks to blend religious conviction with public policy.

There is no doubt, say longtime observers of the religious right, that this administration has taken to heart the lessons of '92 and '94. President Clinton's first issue, gays in the military, made him appear captive to his party's left wing. And after the GOP swept Congress in 1994 with their Contract With America, they led with social-conservative issues and alienated the political mainstream.

"They've learned the lesson of 1994: not to overreach," says a Senate aide with ties to religious conservatives. He recalls then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, right after the election, promising to pass a constitutional amendment allowing prayer in schools. "That wasn't even the Christian Coalition's goal," the aide says. "[Coalition director] Ralph Reed called him up and said, 'Now's not the time.'"

But the world has changed. The big religious conservative groups have fallen on hard times. Many of their organizers are now in mainstream Republican politics - organizers such as Mr. Reed, who's chairman of the Georgia Republican Party.

America is deep in a war on terrorism, with a religious dimension that intensifies support for Israel among evangelical Christians and the administration. Today, the religious-conservative grass roots have "almost a personal relationship with this president," says the Senate aide. "They never had that with his father or Reagan and certainly not Newt."

Christian conservatives can count on Tim Goeglein, deputy director of the White House Office of Public Liaison and former aide to religious activist Gary Bauer, for regular contact and a sympathetic ear. Other White House officials, such as national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and presidential speechwriter Michael Gerson, are also deeply religious.

Bush enjoys such vast support among Christian conservatives that he can safely admonish old-time activists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell for making slanderous comments about Islam. In a way, those two men are a useful foil for Bush, making him appear centrist - though in the Islamic world, calling Muslims worse than Hitler and the Prophet Muhammad a terrorist don't help America's image.

In the four weeks since elections, religious-right activists haven't wasted time. Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo (R) and eight other House members called on the administration to push the Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America to be "less accepting" of gay and lesbian mentors. The National Right to Life Committee has a wish list of five anti-abortion bills - starting with a ban on partial-birth abortions - that were passed by the House but languished in the Democratically controlled Senate.

Considering the range of issues Christian conservatives care about, Bush "won't have to give them everything," says John Green, a religious-right expert at the University of Akron in Ohio. "But he will have to do a couple of things. There is a real debate in Republican circles over what those couple of things are."

Probably the easiest way for Bush to satisfy Christian conservatives will be with judicial appointments, especially at the district and appeals-court levels, says Professor Green. Any vacancies on the US Supreme Court will likely be more controversial, since they occur so rarely and the stakes are so high.

Bush has such strong approval ratings that "he can do more than Reagan" to advance the Christian agenda, says Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which opposes many religious-right goals. Bush's right-hand political man, Karl Rove, "knows that this base of 18 to 20 percent of the electorate that self-identifies as religious right - you can't irritate them too much or they might sit home" in the next election.

As a voting block, the religious right is more important than it was five or six years ago, says Green: "They're really a center of the coalition that Bush has built." Look at the last two elections, he says. Bush won the social conservative vote over people who'd voted for Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996, and got business conservatives back in the tent as well. "Looking toward 2004, he has to keep that group together and expand it a little bit," says Green.

The key, observers say, will be for Bush to follow his instincts and play to the social-conservative center. "He has an innate sense of where moderate religious conservatives are, and he's picked up support from some of the larger portions of the community who don't respond well to the Falwells and Robertsons," says Jim Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in South Carolina. "Rove doesn't understand them as much as the boss does."

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