Du Pont and Robertson: the early bird gets to hone his image. Advance moves by both will try to improve `longshot' status

Only 776 days until the election, and the race for the presidency, circa 1988, is in full swing. Sort of. Two Republican contenders jumped into the fray this week -- or, rather, formed their own fray.

Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV, one-time governor of Delaware, formally announced his candidacy for president on Tuesday. Then Wednesday night, at a red, white, and blue bash in Washington attended by thousands of his faithful, television evangelist Marion G. ``Pat'' Robertson side-stepped into the presidential arena by announcing the start of a signature collection drive.

Three million signatures on a petition by Sept. 17, 1987, the Rev. Mr. Robertson promised his audience, and he will run for the presidency.

Nearly 3,000 of Robertson's admirers thronged to Constitution Hall Wednesday night for a three hour song-and-speech spectacle. The performance was linked by closed-circuit television with 216 other meeting places across the country. The first petitions were handed out to all those attending, along with a request for each to enclose a check of $100. One campaign aide guessed that the quota would be filled in as little as six months, and suggested that campaign strategists had deliberately picked a figure they knew they could comfortably meet.

``What is God's will for me in this?'' Robertson asked the crowd, ``Let me assure you I know God's will for me.''

Both Robertson and Mr. du Pont are extreme long-shots, jumping into presidential races at very early dates. But both campaigns feel they need the head start to get their efforts off the ground.

Polls show du Pont far behind Vice President George Bush, Senate Majority leader Robert J. Dole (R) of Kansas, and Rep. Jack Kemp (R) of New York, the current leading contenders for the Republican nomination.

Du Pont campaign aides say their candidate has raised $700,000 so far and will need another $7.3 million to take him through the New Hampshire primary in February 1988. Most important, du Pont's name recognition is almost nil outside of Delaware, where he was a popular two-term governor credited with saving the state from bankruptcy and balancing its budget.

Robertson has a hard-core constituency of fundamentalist Christians, many of them devotees of the daily 90-minute talk show called ``The 700 Club'' broadcast over his Christian Broadcasting Network. His aides say the program reaches a daily audience of 12 million, according to A. C. Nielsen ratings.

But his preaching experience is considered to be a liability for his presidential candidacy beyond the limits of the Christian right. Exit polls taken during last month's Michigan Republican primary revealed unfavorable ratings for Robertson as high as 45 percent.

Thus, Robertson's early and unconcealed efforts are seen by many analysts as an attempt to overcome negative aspects that could envelope his candidacy.

``Robertson is attempting to cast himself as a middle-of-the-roader, while not betraying the people who put him where he is,'' says one Republican strategist, who is a consultant for the Robertson campaign. But such a task will not be easy, as evidence by a ``Robertson Film Festival'' held yesterday by the liberal People for the American Way. The ``festival'' featured clips from the 700 Club program, where Robertson was shown claiming to have changed a hurricane's course and arguing that ``non-Christian people and atheists'' are wielding the constitution ``to destroy the foundations of our society.''

Ironically, while Robertson attempts to take a more centrist approach, the historically middle-of-the-road du Pont has embarked on a strategy to appease the Republican party's conservative wing.

Du Pont is running on a platform calling for ``comprehensive'' drug testing for all high school students, support for President Reagan's controversial Strategic Defense Initiative, a phase-out of government farm-price supports, and the establishment of a so-called ``workfare'' program.

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