Election '88 is shaping up as the year of the two reverends. The Rev. Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jesse Jackson are rattling the Republican and Democratic Party establishments, and forcing other candidates to revamp their White House strategies.
Mr. Robertson's upset victory in an Iowa straw poll over the weekend was only the latest in a series of jolts delivered by the two men of the cloth. Robertson got 34 percent of the vote at a GOP fundraiser in Ames, Iowa - well ahead of Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas (25 percent) and Vice-President George Bush (22 percent). About 3,800 Iowa Republicans attended the event.
Meanwhile, Mr. Jackson has romped to more than a 2-to-1 lead in the national polls over his nearest Democratic rival, Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts.
Delighted with the Iowa results, Robertson is expected to announce today at a press conference in Chesapeake, Va., that his campaign looks viable and could soon be officially under way.
Robertson's victory was proof to professionals of his ability to organize at the grassroots. Supporters, including hundreds of parishioners sent by their ministers, came from across the state to back Robertson, a television evangelist and broadcaster.
In Ames, the Robertson supporters were given red, white, and blue T-shirts to distinguish them from others, and noisemakers, confetti, and small styrofoam airplanes to use when he was introduced. They bubbled with enthusiasm.
Robertson's demonstration of people-power sent a loud signal to the other campaigns. The ability to organize people is crucial in Iowa, where voting in February will be at precinct caucuses, which draw a lower turnout than primaries. In a caucus setting, several thousand strategically placed people can carry the day.
Robertson's campaign showed similar organizing skill last year when the evangelist outdistanced his rivals in an early round of the complicated Michigan delegate-selection process.
Robertson vowed last year to run for the White House only if his supporters could gather 3 million signatures by Sept. 17, 1987. He's expected to say today they they have exceeded that goal.
On the Democratic side, Jackson has won greater acceptance among black leaders, and among whites, than he did in 1984.
Jackson's greatest threat to other Democrats comes in the South. Several factors could help him carry a number of states there, including his strong support among blacks, the lack of a conservative, white candidate from the South, and the fragmentation of support among other contenders.
These factors could give Jackson an edge on March 8, Super Tuesday, when some 20 states, including more than a dozen Southern and border states, hold primaries.
Political scholar Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute says both Jackson and Robertson pose certain risks for the frontrunners in their parties.
But Dr. Ornstein says the major danger from Robertson among Republicans will be to the second tier of candidates, such as US Rep. Jack Kemp of New York and former Delaware Gov. Pierre (Pete) du Pont IV.
``It's extremely unlikely that Robertson can win in Iowa, or finish second in the caucuses ...,'' Ornstein says. ``But Robertson clearly has a reasonable chance of third. If Robertson finishes ahead of Kemp, you might as well kiss Kemp goodbye. And if he's ahead of du Pont, that is also a blow.''
Ornstein sees somewhat less risk from Jackson to Democrats. He thinks Jackson will be under heavy pressure to improve on his 1984 vote. If he fails to do that, ``it will show that he has a ceiling of support.'' That will drive potential support, both black and white, away from Jackson, Ornstein suggests.
Analysts suggest that the major effect of both Robertson and Jackson could eventually be on the national party conventions. If they go in with 15 to 20 percent of the delegates in their respective parties, they could influence the two party platforms.
There is also a small possibility that in a deadlocked convention, Jackson or Robertson could act as a powerbroker who could throw votes to the eventual nominee.
Both Jackson and Robertson have a visceral appeal to voting groups which have felt left out of the American mainstream.
At the Ames meeting, Robertson had his supporters on their feet and cheering.
``Communism is tyranny,'' he told them. It's time, he said, that communism was eliminated everywhere, ``including the Soviet Union.''
He called for a return to times when ``little children can once again, by God's grace, pray in the schools of America.''
He said it was time for ``a crusade to restore the greatness to America through moral strength.''
And he said that Americans, as a people, should be ``unashamed to shed a tear when we see the flag.''