The Christian Coalition: Darker Days Without Its Guiding Light?

Over the past eight years, political wunderkind Ralph Reed has transformed the Christian Coalition from an outgrowth of religious broadcaster Pat Robertson's 1988 Presidential quest into one of the conservative movement's most potent forces. But now, the 36-year-old Reed has left to become a political consultant. And the powerhouse he built is facing a struggle to retain its clout.

The official start of the new era: Sept. 12-13, when representatives of the 1.9-million member Coalition meet in Atlanta to plot strategy and honor Reed. With Newt Gingrich, Steve Forbes, Lamar Alexander, and three other Republican Presidential wannabes dropping by to make their pitches, it would seem that the group still has its edge. But the loss of Reed's grassroots genius could prove costly. "The Coalition is facing some serious organizational challenges," says Furman University political scientist James L. Guth.

Despite its success in electing allies to office and taking control of some 20 state GOP organizations, the Coalition's membership growth has slowed. It has tried to broaden its base of white evangelicals by recruiting Catholics and African American Protestants, but the going has been rough. "The Coalition seems pretty close to its potential membership peak," says Georgetown University professor Clyde Wilcox.

At the same time, the Coalition faces aggressive challenges on both flanks. Other social conservatives complain that Robertson's creation is too pragmatic--willing to trade principle for legislative success--and too concerned about secular issues such as tax cuts and balanced budgets. Reed's backing of Bob Dole, for example, still rankles many on the hard-core Right. At the other end of the GOP spectrum, liberal Republicans, such as ex-Massachusetts Governor William F. Weld, accuse Coalition members of being intolerant and extreme.

Then there are potential legal woes. The Coalition claims tax-exempt status as a nonpartisan group. But the Federal Election Commission, Internal Revenue Service, and Senate Governmental Affairs Committee are all examining the Coalition's close ties to Republican candidates in an attempt to determine whether the group has abused its tax status.

Not suprisingly, Reed downplays the problems. "The Christian Coalition is a strong grassroots organization, a significant player on Capitol Hill, and a defender of principled religious values," he says. New Executive Director Randy Tate, 31, an ex-congressman from Washington State, predicts that the Coalition will thrive by following Reed's formula. "It works," he brags.

To a point. Under Reed, the Coalition successfully infiltrated the GOP structure, elected state and local candidates, and shaped the Republican Party platform. But its efforts to influence Presidential races has fallen short: It has yet to back a winning horse.

TRAINING TAPES. For now, Tate is focusing on organization. He hopes to double membership, to nearly 4 million, by tapping into neighborhood groups involved in social disputes, such as fights over local school curricula. To hone his troops' political skills, Tate is pushing a new series of video and audio training tapes and workbooks. His goal is to have 10 foot soldiers in every precinct in America. His troops will be tested when the Coalition faces its first major challenge without Reed: the '98 elections. A strong turnout of Coalition backers could help the GOP regain some of the congressional seats it lost last year.

The really big showdown comes in 2000. Tate says the Coalition wants to have a "significant role" in the Presidential election, though it doesn't plan to unite early behind a single candidate. "We want our voice to be heard," he says. But without Reed's leadership, the Christian Coalition may find itself wandering in the political wilderness.

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