PAT ROBERTSON'S ``hidden army'' of Christian voters went AWOL Super Tuesday. The religious partisans who carried Mr. Robertson to earlier triumphs failed to muster in large enough numbers for the biggest battle of all in the South.
It was in Dixie, Robertson's base, that the former religious broadcaster expected to do best. But even in Virginia, his home state, he could do no better than third.
His only Super Tuesday victory was similar to earlier ones: a first-place finish in the Washington state caucuses. Robertson has consistently done well in low-turnout caucuses. But he fares poorly when the scope of the struggle moves to a primary with broad-based voting.
The question for Robertson: What next? Already he is talking about 1990 and 1992.
``This is my first race,'' he told reporters. ``If this isn't the one, we'll be back four years later.''
Although Robertson's army of evangelicals looked more like a platoon on Super Tuesday, his influence this year - and in the future - could be significant.
In a number of states, the well-organized, dedicated Robertson followers have managed to take over county and even state party leadership posts, as they did in Michigan and parts of Florida.
Robertson hopes to have an impact on elections for the US House and Senate in 1990 by bringing conservative Christians into the process. He explains that his goal is to broaden the GOP - to attract thousands, and eventually millions, of conservative Protestants and Roman Catholics who are alienated from both political parties.
``We're building a tremendous base,'' Robertson said yesterday. He'll have some delegates at the national convention, and some party officials on his side from as many as 20 states, he claimed.
``That's not a bad accomplishment from a dead start.''
Robertson clearly was resigned yesterday, however, to the nomination going to Mr. Bush. The vice-president has demonstrated great strength among voters Robertson once considered his own.
Even among born-again Christians, Bush toppled Robertson by a 41-to-34 margin, ABC News exit polls found. Among Protestants as a whole, Bush won 54 to 18. Overall, Robertson got only 13 percent of the Super Tuesday vote.
Robertson and Robert Dole hoped to work in tandem on Super Tuesday to prevent a Bush sweep. Dole was particularly counting on Robertson to run strongly in the Bible Belt that sweeps across Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and into Arkansas and parts of Texas.
But in Georgia, Robertson got only 16 percent. In Alabama, 14 percent. In Mississippi, 13 percent.
His best showing (21 percent) turned out to be in Oklahoma, next door to Dole's Kansas. Ironically, Robertson's showing there may have prevented Dole from carrying the state.