WASHINGTON — The morning headlines blared the topic, and his audience of conservative Christian activists was primed for a fiery response. But the Rev. Pat Robertson, longtime foe of abortion rights, made no mention of the government's decision to allow distribution of a controversial abortion pill in a speech Friday opening the Christian Coalition's annual convention.
The omission reflected the pragmatic approach Robertson is taking in a campaign season that he and other social conservatives describe as the most important in years. With control of the White House, Congress and perhaps the Supreme Court all at stake, the last thing Robertson wants is for the November election to be about him.
So after his speech, which dwelt on the evils of big government spending, Robertson told reporters he was biting his tongue on the Food and Drug Administration's approval Thursday of the pill known as RU-486 for one reason: to help Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush. Robertson said the FDA action was a Clinton administration ploy to help Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee.
"I think it's a trap for Bush, and I think he ought to stay out of it, and I will too," Robertson said. "Right now, to play this campaign on abortion would be a tragic mistake. Voters, by a vast majority, are more concerned about other issues."
Gore supports abortion rights. Bush favors an abortion ban except in cases of rape, incest or to save a woman's life. Bush told the GOP convention in August that he would sign legislation to ban so-called partial-birth abortions--a pledge that the coalition activists here remember. He also issued a statement Thursday condemning the FDA action. But the Texas governor generally has downplayed the abortion rights issue in an effort to reach the political center.
To most of the nearly 3,000 people expected this weekend for the annual gathering of the coalition Robertson founded in 1989, abortion is a front-and-center concern. Robertson acknowledged Friday that addressing the issue squarely could help energize Christian conservatives across the country, but he added: "It may also cost the election."
As his remarks indicated, Robertson clearly is mindful of the political problems Bush might face with swing voters if he appears too closely tied to groups such as the Christian Coalition--even though most members of the coalition enthusiastically support his candidacy.
Robertson himself was labeled an "evil influence" on the Republican Party by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during this year's GOP presidential primary campaign. McCain later insisted his remark had been intended as a joke, but he sought to make the case that Bush would suffer from being tied too closely to Robertson and other Christian conservative activists.
Bush stood by Robertson during his primary fight with McCain. But he declined an invitation to address the Christian Coalition convention in person, scheduling instead a video appearance today. Representing the Bush campaign in person at the convention was Lynne Cheney, wife of GOP vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney.
Also on hand Friday were House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who urged activists to mobilize to protect the fragile Republican majority in Congress. At stake, they said, were such GOP goals as limiting abortion rights, cutting taxes, containing federal spending and restoring local control on education policy.
"This is the year," Lott told the convention. "This is the most important election of my lifetime. I've been in the Congress 28 years, but never before has it all been on the line."
Frank Marsico, 47, who came to the convention from Mechanicsburg, Pa., said that Christian conservative activists are girding for the battle. "People are coming out of their slumber. It really is integrity and character that do count."