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Religious vs. Secular Appeal : Robertson Tailors His Message to Audiences

November 23, 1987|CATHLEEN DECKER | Times Staff Writer

BEDFORD, N.H. — A different Pat Robertson from the one who had just addressed a southern New Hampshire health care forum sat at a table in his hotel room here, expounding on AIDS. The aura of moderation that marked his morning appearance had dissolved.

The AIDS virus is not transmitted by heterosexual activity, the former preacher said, and scientists are "frankly lying to us" about the nature of the fatal affliction.

Robertson added that acquired immune deficiency syndrome "is not going to be prevented by using condoms."

"This is a total illusion. . . . The AIDS virus is not in the human semen--it is in the bloodstream. We're not being told that," he said.

The Republican presidential candidate's remarks, in an interview with The Times, contradict most medical studies about the disease's cause and its prevention. Robertson said he drew his conclusions from a report he read that was presented to the British House of Commons, adding: "But any scientist can tell you that's where AIDS comes from."

Touchy subjects such as AIDS rarely come up at Robertson campaign events. Unless prodded by questioners or speaking to a particularly religious audience, Robertson rarely strays these days onto such controversial ground.

A three-day trip to New Hampshire and Maine, which ended Saturday, illustrated the two approaches used by Robertson as he tries to extend his appeal beyond the politically inexperienced, largely religious troops he now commands, to more traditional, secular Republicans.

In a speech in Concord before 800 mostly religious supporters gathered in his honor, Robertson launched a ringing endorsement of school prayer--implying that it would ease the problems of illiteracy, drug use and teen-age pregnancy. He defended the right of landlords to discriminate without criminal penalty against AIDS patients or "those who possibly are carriers of AIDS." He suggested that those gathered there were like American revolutionaries, engaged in a "holy cause," and would be invincible against the "enemy."

Repeatedly, the listeners interrupted with sustained applause, and several standing ovations. When asked for donations, hundreds responded.

Admires His Family Views

Grace Pierson, a 79-year-old Concord resident who attended, said she is backing Robertson for his traditional family views and for another, less definable reason: "Trust."

"He is very sincere," she said. "He has values I hold to . . . Christian principles."

The themes were very different when Robertson spoke to mainstream Republican audiences. There was no mention of school prayer, AIDS or holy causes in talks with underwriters, construction industry workers and health care employees. Instead, Robertson stuck to safer subjects, such as Social Security and the budget deficit.

But there, the Robertson charisma and the shared beliefs that religious audiences find so compelling about him were not always enough to attract new supporters. The applause was far less enthusiastic, and some listeners were openly disappointed and critical.

"His presentation was shallow and contradictory," said Raymond P. D'Amante, a Concord lawyer who attended a Robertson speech to the Concord Area Home Builders Assn. "It's as if he's floundering with a few ideas and no program."

Conservative Appeal Key

Appealing to voters such as D'Amante, a Ronald Reagan supporter, is of marked importance to Robertson's campaign if he is to mount a serious challenge to the Republican front-runners, Vice President George Bush and Kansas Sen. Bob Dole. The need is particularly great in New Hampshire, which, unlike the South and parts of the Midwest, does not have a large evangelical community to provide Robertson a firm base.

Among the mainstream, Robertson raises eyebrows with his strong brand of me-against-them politics. In his New Hampshire visit, Robertson suggested that Secretary of State George P. Shultz was trying to move the United States into "global accommodation with communism. . . . I want a secretary of state who will represent America," Robertson said.

Robertson also professed shock at what he described as the holding-for-ransom of American POWs in Vietnam.

"There's been a tremendous cover-up (of) the fact that they're there," he said at a Manchester underwriters' meeting. Pressed on the matter by a startled guest, he said his belief that POWs were being held came from a news story on the Christian Broadcasting Network, which he founded.

Stresses Education Issue

In general, Robertson's campaign is emphasizing such themes as fiscal conservatism, the American family and a desire for a more traditional educational system.

In his non-religious stump speech, he calls for a private savings plan that would eventually replace Social Security, as well as a private program that would allow Americans to save money for old-age health costs. Both plans would be structured like individual retirement accounts, and contributors would receive tax breaks.

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