"It's better to lose fighting a noble cause than to live in peace as a coward," Christian Coalition founder and president Pat Robertson declared as he kicked off the group's ninth annual convention Friday morning. More than 3,500 attendees from more than 40 countries were registered to attend.
Scheduled speakers at the "Road to Victory '99" event included every GOP presidential hopeful except Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. -- Elizabeth Dole, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Steve Forbes, Pat Buchanan, Gary Bauer, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and Alan Keyes -- as well as a range of congressional leaders from House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., on down.
The purpose of the convention is not only to bring together like-minded conservative Christian activists, but to flex a little political muscle and get the crowds juiced to do so in the coming election year. That, as Lott said, will be when "the whole enchilada" will be up for grabs -- the House, Senate and White House.
As Robertson said in his welcoming remarks, "If we're not in the field in this coming election, the Republicans will lose ... we will be the margin of victory."
At the same time that he was trying to psych up his flock, Robertson admonished congressional leaders not to forget them. "We elected you," he said.
GOP congressional leaders, conversely, seemed somewhat on the defensive, explaining to the crowd their difficulties in governing alongside heathen Democrats who vote against measures like the "partial-birth abortion" ban. House Majority Leader Dick Armey regaled the audience with his outrage at Democrats' refusal to legislate that anyone who kills a pregnant woman is taking two lives. Democrats, he said, regarded the measure as a camel's nose under the tent -- a first step toward legislating that a fetus is a life.
"How self-centered," Armey said.
Lott, in a folksy address, had four empty chairs placed next to him on stage, to illustrate his need for four GOP senators to reach the 67 votes needed to override President Clinton's veto of the partial-birth abortion bill. He called on the convention's attendees to elect Republican senators from Virginia, New York, New Jersey and Nevada, as well as to reelect Republican senators like Minnesota's Rod Grams.
In her Friday morning speech, Elizabeth Dole asked the conservative crowd to give her a second look and trumpeted her support for many of their top issues. Calling education her "No. 1 priority," she touted vouchers, school prayer and the posting of the Ten Commandments, and spoke of the need to "return control to states and local school districts."
Dole also backed measures to give schools the power to remove disruptive students and conduct "parent-approved backpack and locker searches." She came out against Internet porn, partial-birth abortion, the marriage penalty tax and "sound-bite diplomacy." She was greeted politely if unenthusiastically except by a small group of squealing young women clearly there as part of her campaign.
Two members of a rival organization, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, wandered the lobby area speaking with reporters. "Robertson showed that he's more interested in the G-O-P than in G-O-D," one said.
The opposition group was responsible for obtaining and circulating an audiotape of a private meeting at the Christian Coalition's 1997 convention in which Robertson spoke of the importance of electing Republicans -- one of the reasons, it is said, that the Coalition lost its tax-exempt status. The Coalition, which claims a network of more than 2 million activists, is appealing the decision in court.
Other speakers for Friday included Lt. Col. Oliver North, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., and Eagle Forum president Phyllis Schlafly. Saturday's speakers will include Forbes, who in his previous run for the presidency once referred to Robertson as a "toothy flake," but is arduously courting Christian conservatives this time around.