RALPH REED may be one of the most powerful men in American politics, but he doesn't live close to the country's traditional center of power.
To find him, you must first drive south of Washington, D.C., for 3-1/2 hours, into the sleepy Navy town of Chesapeake, Va., squeezed between Virginia Beach and the Great Dismal Swamp. Then search out the industrial park on Sara Drive.
At one corner, double glass doors modestly announce ''Christian Coalition,'' the organization run by the youthful Mr. Reed since its inception in 1989. Inside lies a warren of offices and a mailing warehouse, its shelves filled with books, pamphlets, and videotapes with titles like ''Running and Winning as a Christian Conservative.''
This is the nerve center of the Christian right's most politically potent organization. With a reported membership of 1.7 million people, it has emerged as one of the most powerful grass-roots forces in American politics - and one of the most controversial.
Just a few years ago, it was considered little more than a fringe group of born-again conservatives concerned about abortion and school prayer. Today it is pushing a broad agenda that runs from taxes to prison reform. The group has direct pipelines into the power centers of Congress, most of the GOP presidential campaigns, and elective offices throughout the country from statehouses to school boards.
Such heady influence for such an obscurely located group. Just how Reed likes it.
''To be perfectly honest with you, I think it's one of the keys to our success,'' said Reed in an interview at the headquarters, originally placed there to be near founder Pat Robertson's other operations. ''We're outside of the beltway. We're 3-1/2 hours and 3,000 mental miles away from the nation's capital, and as a result, we have more of a grass-roots flavor.
''We go to Washington to fight battles. We don't live it; we don't breathe it; we don't sleep it; it doesn't define us,'' says Reed, adding that the coalition does have a fully staffed office in the city.
Today and tomorrow, however, the entire organization will be living and breathing Washington as it holds its ''Road to Victory'' conference - an extravaganza that may look more like a beauty pageant for GOP presidential hopefuls than a confab of Protestant evangelicals (and a few Catholics and Jews).
The only Republican candidate definitely not coming to the show is Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, whose aggressively pro-abortion-rights stand puts him squarely at odds with social conservatives. But most, if not all, the others will be there. Six will address the faithful.
Reed should be flattered that in just six years he has built an organization that causes presidential candidates to genuflect. But he sees potential pitfalls in such heavy political involvement.
''I think that we as a movement have got to make sure that we don't fall into the trap that the labor unions did, that the feminists did, and that Jesse Jackson has on the left,'' says Reed.
''You put these events on, you stage a forum for presidential candidates to come and pay homage, and you sort of have an almost pole that they have to leap over in order to pass the audition. I don't think that's what we ought to be about.''
Reed and Mr. Robertson plan to avoid photo opportunities with candidates, and so will not introduce any of them at the conference. Reed is also planning a speech that will ''cut against the grain,'' he says.
''What I'm going to say is, 'Don't make the mistake of becoming just another special interest group in the Republican Party. Yes, you've become influential. Yes, you've become powerful. Don't now let that become for you that sort of intoxicating potion that allows you to become just like the chamber of commerce or the AFL-CIO, only you've got Christian in front of your name, because you have a much more important role to play in our society than that.''
The real story of the conference will not be the candidates or 1996, he says. It will be the ''burgeoning and resurgent social movement that has come of age and has matured to the point where it's respected and acknowledged by friend and foe alike as a permanent reality in American politics.''
Road to victory or nowhere?
This year's conference will be the coalition's fifth annual convention, and for the fifth straight year it is called ''Road to Victory.''
What does ''victory'' mean to the Christian Coalition? Certainly last November's elections were a tremendous win for Christian conservatives, who turned out in high numbers and who are credited with handing control of both houses of Congress to the Republicans for the first time in 40 years.
That victory won the Christian right a seat at the head table in Congress and tremendous influence on nearly every issue on the table - from the budget to abortion rights to welfare reform. After the House of Representatives raced through its Contract With America during the 104th Congress's first 100 days, it plunged in on the Christian Coalition's 10-point ''Contract With the American Family.'' House Speaker Newt Gingrich promised to push this contract with as much gusto as the first.
But for Reed, the idea of victory is notional, more metaphysical than political in its pursuit of societal perfection.
''We're not talking about victory in a political sense,'' he says. ''We're not talking about victory in the sense of electing a Republican Congress or even a Republican president or having more votes than liberals do on a particular thing.
''I think what we mean when we say 'road to victory' is a victory of values, and to us those values are respect for innocent human life, strengthening the traditional family, honoring the common-sense values of work and faith and fidelity and personal responsibility. To us, it means turning around the moral decay and the coarsening of the culture that has afflicted our country for the last 30 years.''
Reed is looking to presidential candidates to use their bully pulpit to decry America's crisis in values. When Republican front-runner Sen. Bob Dole, a traditional moderate whom the Christian right views as not ''right'' enough, delivered a speech blasting Hollywood values, Reed cheered. As well he might: Senator Dole solicited his input on an early draft.
Even if true victory does not come from political triumph, politics is certainly the Christian Coalition's raison d'etre. The coalition has had mixed success in its support of candidates. Iran-contra figure Oliver North, who was viewed as a creature of the Christian right, failed in his bid for the Senate.
Even in Mr. Robertson's own backyard, Virginia Beach, a slate of Christian conservatives failed to win election to the school board. Candidates seem to have greater success when they win the support of the Christian right without appearing to be a product of the Christian right, such as Virginia Gov. George Allen.
As a force in Republican political organization, the Christian Coalition's success is indisputable. John Green, a specialist on Christian conservatives at the University of Akron in Ohio, says the Christian right and its social-issue allies ''exercise substantial influence'' in between 25 and 30 state Republican Party organizations.
Reed questions reports that gauge how many state GOPs are ''controlled'' by the Christian Coalition. He puts it his own way: ''Our movement is now in many ways thoroughly integrated and enmeshed into the machinery of the Republican Party. All this debate about the pro-life plank and the Specter-Buchanan debate is so much theater,'' he says, referring to conservative candidate Pat Buchanan, who takes a hard line against abortion.
''The Republican Party is not going to retreat on those issues, because the party itself - the center of the party, the people who are the state chairmen and the county chairmen and the precinct captains - they are those people.''
Professor Green's research shows that about 25 percent of the adult population in the US is white evangelical Protestants. Of those, about 60 percent vote Republican. But that number could easily grow to 90 percent, Green says, just as 90 percent of blacks vote Democratic.
''Since 1990, the Christian right has been on a trajectory of bigger and better,'' he says. ''They have not reached their natural limit in terms of clout as voters.''
The Christian right's opponents are fighting the idea that religious conservatives have cornered the market on solutions to society's ailments. This week, the group People for the American Way released a survey by Peter D. Hart Research that showed the public rejects by large margins six planks of the Contract With the American Family, such as the proposal to eliminate federal funding of the arts and public broadcasting, and the proposal for a constitutional amendment on religious expression.
Of course, surveys on such complex matters may be influenced by how questions are asked. Reed remains unwaveringly confident that he's got the issues right.
Reed, who has a PhD in American history, sees the explosive growth of Christian politics as ''a slumbering giant awakened from its sleep'' - a sleep that began with the repeal of prohibition.
Reed the improbable
It is difficult to imagine Reed living a quiet life in academia, as he had planned. Though slight of build, he has a large voice and a skill for political tactics that has brought more than one presidential candidate knocking on his door. And though he still looks like a high school valedictorian delivering a commencement address when he speaks to a crowd, his young appearance has now become almost a trademark.
With a wife and three young children at home, he is also living many of the issues his movement is grappling with - the cost of raising children, schools, the culture. Reed thinks, for example, that it should be possible for spouses at home to put money in a tax-free retirement account, as if they were working outside the home.
On the question of whether mothers of young children should work outside the home, he calls it ''an individual decision that should be made by husbands and wives.'' For education, some families choose to home-school their kids, but Reed's only school-age child goes to a public school.
Then there's the Disney question. Some conservative Christian groups have complained that Disney movies either send subversive messages to children or are overtly offensive, in the case of films put out by Disney-owned Miramax.
What does Reed make of all this? ''I took my daughter to 'Pocahontas.' I mean, how is she going to be corrupted by that? So she learns that white European males were arrogant - they were!''
Reed has also shown he doesn't mind putting some more serious cash in Disney coffers: Last week he took his family on a pre-conference vacation - to Disney World.