Judging by the crowds at the Christian Coalition conference here over the weekend, one would think Gary Bauer was the next president of the United States.
The conservative activist had, by far, the most supporters here, the bulk of them young, enthusiastic - and dismissive of charges that he had behaved inappropriately by being alone in a room with a female aide. His presidential campaign soldiers on.
But the real question his supporters face - as do backers of all the other candidates whose names don't end with Bush - is how active to remain in the campaign if Texas Gov. George W. Bush is, as expected, the Republican nominee.
"A lot depends on how many feelings get hurt in the primaries," says John Green, an expert on the religious right at the University of Akron in Ohio. "If Bush walks away with it and everybody loses early, it'll be easier to pull these people back in because nobody's emotions are engaged."
The Christian conservative movement, which suffered some body blows this past year, isn't as powerful as it used to be. But its adherents remain among the most motivated of the GOP's grass-roots activists, and their on-the-ground support could be crucial to Governor Bush's battle to win the White House for the Republican Party.
For some, this is the year to put purist beliefs aside and back someone who can actually win. Bush's charisma and big money could make him a formidable opponent for the Democratic nominee, and though he hasn't made religious-conservative causes - such as abortion and school prayer - signature issues in his campaign, some conservative Christians are ready to back him from the start.
Others support candidates who are putting religious-right issues high on their agendas - such as Mr. Bauer and publisher Steve Forbes - but are willing to work for whomever the party nominates. Then there are those on the fence.
"I'm not sure about Bush," says Steven Onken, a teacher at a Christian school near Annapolis, Md. "I've heard him avoid taking a definitive stand on abortion. I'm not convinced he's fully pro-life."
Bush's appearance before the Christian Coalition convention was a study in political needle-threading. For the most part, he delivered his standard stump speech, grafting on a few extra lines in the beginning about his efforts to limit abortion in Texas.
"He's telling them they don't need to be afraid of him," says a political observer.
But he also didn't back away from any of his less-than-pure positions on abortion.
He has, for example, stated he will select conservative judges, without requiring they pass a litmus test on the abortion issue. He has also stated that the time is not right to push for a constitutional amendment banning abortion, a sentiment that got another GOP candidate, Arizona Sen. John McCain in hot water with abortion foes. (Senator McCain declined to address the Christian Coalition conference.)
By not pandering to the Christian right, Bush is protecting his flank for the general election - when he hopes to appeal to a broad spectrum of Republicans, independents, and even Democrats. For most of the electorate, abortion and other religious right matters are not make-or-break voting issues.
Some strongly pro-life Christian activists understand Bush's challenge and are backing him from the start. Last June, when Bush began actively campaigning, a young couple with four children stood in an airplane hangar in Iowa with several hundred other excited Bush supporters, waiting for the candidate's plane to arrive. The father explained that although abortion was his top issue, he was behind Bush because he was "tired of losing."
"Better a Republican in the White House who's with us partway than a Democrat who's completely against us," he said.
At the Christian Coalition conference, one of the few attendees wearing a Bush sticker said that while she is "adamantly opposed" to abortion, she thought Bush was good enough on the issue and may back his candidacy.
"I like his experience and electability," said Renee Teetsel, a homemaker living in Columbia, Md.
She echoed the sentiments of Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, who practically endorsed Bush at a press conference.
"So far, George Bush said things that have led me to believe he would be worthy of the support of the coalition were he the nominee of the party," he said.
Since the Christian Coalition sprang from the Rev. Mr. Robertson's presidential campaign back in 1988, its leadership has urged Christians to take a pragmatic approach to politics.
In the past year, other leaders of the religious right have expressed disgust at how little the movement has achieved in national politics and policy, and some have called on conservatives to quit politics altogether.
But for the 3,000 religious conservatives gathered in Washington over the weekend, that message didn't play.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society