The Rev. Marion G. (Pat) Robertson, exhibiting unexpected political panache, has become a man to watch in 1988. The TV evangelist, who launched his presidential campaign yesterday, was once chalked off as an unimportant factor in the race for the White House. But no more.
In Iowa, New Hampshire, Minnesota, South Carolina, and Florida, his Republican rivals, including Vice-President George Bush, can hear the hoofbeats of the Robertson campaign.
Mr. Robertson's appeal to the voters is straightforward. He calls for a revival of morality at home and staunch anticommunism abroad.
Robertson's strength has been surprising. He has raised an estimated $10 million, and has been carried forward by grass-roots enthusiasm among thousands of Protestant evangelicals.
Most analysts still do not expect Robertson to be a serious contender for the Republican nomination. They predict that the eventual winner will be Mr. Bush, Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas, or, less likely, Rep. Jack Kemp of New York.
But they now widely believe that Robertson could be a significant player, both at the GOP convention in New Orleans, and in the party's future.
Linda Divall, president of a Republican consulting firm, says Robertson ``can definitely have an impact in the convention due to his organizational skills.''
Ms. Divall says Robertson supporters know how to be at the right place, get there early, and bring high visibility to their cause. That's how Robertson forces stunned Mr. Bush - first in Michigan, then in South Carolina and Iowa during early political skirmishing.
``I think the biggest obstacle that he faces is the continued unfavorable perception that he has,'' says Divall. ``Many pollsters ... ask the question `Who would you least like to see President?' Robertson always scores the highest.''
Even so, Robertson may already be helping to reshape the Republican Party. He is attracting thousands of new participants to GOP functions and expanding the party's base among conservative, white, Protestant voters.
Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution compares Robertson's potential impact to that of Sen. Barry Goldwater in 1964. Senator Goldwater, the party's presidential nominee, went down to a crushing defeat at the hands of Lyndon B. Johnson. But Mr. Goldwater's campaign brought thousands of new partisans to the GOP in the South and West. Those new supporters eventually helped lift Ronald Reagan into the Oval Office.
Mr. Hess says Robertson has the wherewithal to ``threaten or take over local and state Republican Party organizations. ... The Republican Party of Michigan, Iowa, and South Carolina may look very different after Pat Robertson.''
Yet analysts doubt Robertson can go all the way to the nomination, as Goldwater's maverick forces did in 1964.
Horace Busby, who once worked in the Johnson White House, says Robertson's support comes from pockets of conservative, religious voters. That will help him in caucus states, where turnout is tiny, and a mere 20,000 to 30,000 votes can be decisive. But in big primary states, like New York and California, ``the votes won't be with him,'' Mr. Busby suggests.
Yet the experts have underestimated Robertson before. Establishment Republicans are nervous about Robertson, who has proved he means business.
In the past week, he has resigned his ministry (he was an ordained Southern Baptist minister) and cut his ties to the Christian Broadcasting Network, which he founded 27 years ago. He felt those connections would be in conflict with his campaign for the White House.
Robertson, who studies the Bible and prays for an hour each morning, is no novice to politics. His father was A. Willis Robertson, a US senator from Virginia.
Much of what Robertson calls for in American politics is rooted in his religious views. On education, for example, he says: ``There can be no education without morality, and there can be no lasting morality without religion. For the sake of our children, we must bring God back to the classrooms of America.''
But his statements in other areas are rooted in US nationalism. On trade, for example, he would tell Japan:
``Either give us free and fair access to your markets - or we will shut down America's markets to you.''
His strongest applause lines are anticommunist. He wins cheers for his call to roll back communism, including inside the Soviet Union.