Image: Roberta Combs
Mary Ann Chastain  /  AP
Roberta Combs, head of the Christian Coalition of America, at her home office in Hannahan, S.C., Wednesday, says her group is regaining it's financial health and will be a big factor in the 2008 Republican presidential primary.
updated 3/8/2007 7:57:56 AM ET 2007-03-08T12:57:56

An important ally when George W. Bush first won the presidency, the Christian Coalition of America says it’s poised again to help a conservative win the White House. Whether it can back up that pledge is an open question.

In the seven years since Bush beat John McCain en route to the Republican nomination, the coalition has spiraled into debt and its leadership has fractured. The coalition is trying to resurrect its once-vaunted influence at a time when religious conservatives are struggling to find an acceptable candidate among the leading contenders for the 2008 Republican nomination.

“Bush was just a darling, I think, of the religious right. But I think that this is going to be a different election because you don’t have a George Bush running,” said Roberta Combs, president of the South Carolina-based group that claims a mailing list of 2 million members and sends weekly e-mail blasts to 1 million potential voters.

Among the leading GOP contenders, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani favors abortion rights and domestic partnerships for gays and has a messy marital history. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith and shifting positions on social issues have raised eyebrows of Christian fundamentalists.

And Arizona Sen. John McCain, whose loss to Bush in 2000 was helped along by the coalition after he called TV preachers Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell “agents of intolerance,” is viewed skeptically by many religious conservatives.

Even by its own admission, the coalition, which was founded by Robertson and which for years served as a key ally for conservative candidates, faces a changed landscape. Scads of other conservative Christian organizations concerned with many of the same issues, with opposition to abortion and gay marriage at the top of the list, now vie for candidate attention and may offer endorsements.

With no overarching conservative Christian group anointing a candidate, this season’s GOP primary process is “much more open, much more decentralized and, frankly, much more complicated,” said John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Institute’s Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Influence and funding
Robertson launched the coalition as he ran for the White House in 1988. While his candidacy for the Republican nomination faltered, religious conservatives were emboldened to demand a greater voice in the GOP. Led by its charismatic and politically shrewd executive director, Ralph Reed, the coalition gained influence in the early 1990s.

After Reed stepped down in 1997 to court Christian conservative voters for Bush’s 2000 campaign, that influence began to wane. In 2001, Robertson severed ties with the coalition to concentrate on his ministry.

Randall Balmer, a religion and politics expert at Barnard College, said that when Reed left the coalition, “they lost their best strategist.”

Add to that a whiff of impropriety stemming from Reed’s ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and it shows that once-powerful Christian conservative personalities “are not the kind of moral avatars that they claim to be,” Balmer said. “The religious right is simply collapsing beneath its own weight.”

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Money also has been a problem. Records show the coalition had $17,498 in cash and $1.7 million in debt at the end of 2005 after raising $2.3 million. A year earlier, it had $150,921 in cash and debt of $2.2 million, with only $1.1 million donated.

‘On the verge of going under completely’
“The organization is a shell of what it used to be and on the verge of going under completely,” said Bill Moore, a political scientist at the College of Charleston.

During the past year, leaders of the coalition’s branches in Georgia, Alabama, Iowa and Ohio have bolted for a variety of reasons.

But Combs said such reports of the coalition’s demise are overstated. It cut debt to $1 million in 2006 and “by the end of this year, all of that will be gone,” she said.

“It’s not like the Christian Coalition is the only organization that has its ups and downs financially,” Combs said.

She and other officials with the coalition said its strength lies in its members. No matter how much is in the bank, candidates can’t ignore the group.

“Those people are still there, whether or not they operate on a regular basis under the coalition banner per se,” said Drew McKissick, a board member. “The people who are involved in that organization at the local level are extremely valuable to that candidate’s campaign.”

‘Stabbed in the back by Republicans’
Combs and McKissick also say Christian conservatives are no longer simply seeking a place in the debate — now, they’re in leadership roles.

But some Christian conservatives say the coalition has lost influence because it hasn’t been aggressive enough in demanding that candidates oppose abortion.

“The Republican Party comes along every four years and whispers in our ears and, when the election is over, tells us to go away and to not bother them,” said Mark Crutcher, founder and president of Life Dynamics, a Texas-based anti-abortion group who called the coalition “a functionary of the Republican Party.”

Crutcher said he expects to be “stabbed in the chest” by Democrats, but it’s getting “stabbed in the back by Republicans” that really angers him.

Combs, meanwhile, says the coalition is planning to help its members decide whom to elect by publishing the coalition’s influential voters guides that were sent to 70 million people in 2000. Fewer will be printed this time, but they will be supplemented by e-mail and a revamped Web site the coalition is about to launch.

“I guarantee you, “ Combs said, “when the primary comes around and we distribute millions of voter guides, we’ll be a factor.”

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