Former television evangelist Pat Robertson's White House drive has clearly aroused the faithful, but evidence that his support goes beyond a dedicated, but narrow, base of charismatic Christians is hard to find.
Robertson and his strategists for months have predicted that mainstream Republicans in Iowa and other early battleground states would begin to catch on to his message of bedrock conservatism and old-fashioned morality.
Almost unanimously, however, Robertson supporters interviewed recently at several recent campaign stops in Florida, Mississippi and here in Iowa identified themselves as not only "born-again" Christians, but also as at least occasional viewers of the long-running Christian talk show hosted by Robertson until he launched his campaign last year.
Preaching to Choir
Results of a new Los Angeles Times Poll in Iowa also suggest that, so far, Robertson's campaign has been preaching to the choir--and not even all that effectively. The telephone survey, conducted early this week, showed Robertson far behind Kansas Sen. Bob Dole and Vice President George Bush, the choice of just 10% of Republicans likely to attend the Feb. 8 precinct caucuses.
Even more significant, the poll included some questions designed to pinpoint those respondents who, because of religious affiliation and beliefs, would be the most likely to vote for Robertson. Of that group--about one-third of the overall GOP pool--only 15% of those surveyed said Robertson was their first choice. And none of his support came from outside that group.
"The secret Robertson vote is, in my opinion, a myth," said Times Poll Director I. A. Lewis.
Robertson has scored some impressive early campaign coups on the strength of his motivated evangelical army, most notably trouncing a stunned Bush last year in a highly publicized straw poll in Iowa and in some of the preliminary caucus skirmishing in Michigan.
The Iowa caucuses, with their low turnout, put a premium on organization and dedication--Robertson's long suit--a circumstance that could translate into a tally on caucus night far out of proportion to his overall popularity in the party. But Republican officials question how far Robertson can get along the nomination trail with a base of support largely limited to the religious right.
Doesn't Detect Boom
Iowa Republican Chairman Mike Mahaffey said he has been unable to detect any boom for Robertson outside of the core evangelical community, though the GOP official added a caveat.
"I don't see a candidate in either party whose people are more dedicated and more committed than Pat Robertson's," Mahaffey said. But to seriously challenge the leaders in Iowa, he added, Robertson would need to build some support among more traditional Republicans.
"I haven't seen a lot of that in the state of Iowa, but that's not to say it's not there. Because frankly one of the things about Robertson that's intriguing . . . is that his people are not people we have seen in the past at Republican events."
Constance Snapp, Robertson's national communications director, acknowledged that the campaign itself has a hard time pinpointing its support, but she insisted it was on the upswing. "It's hard to find some of our people because they don't show up on the Republican lists," she said.
Commitment Hard to Measure
If campaign and party leaders have trouble gauging the breadth of the Robertson force, they also have a hard time measuring its commitment to the GOP. A large number of Robertson devotees say they have never before voted in a Republican caucus, while some admit to being one-time Democrats.
Campaigning in Tampa, Fla., recently, Robertson declined to answer when asked whether he would throw his support behind other Republican candidates should his own effort flop. "I frankly don't foresee myself not winning," he said.
Robertson campaign aides say a strong third-place showing in Iowa would be enough to damage front-runners Bush and Dole and add momentum to the Robertson drive before the March 8 slate of Super Tuesday primaries in Robertson's native South.
But, apparently dismissing the polls and the caution of his own advisers, Robertson boldly predicts he will win Iowa and become unstoppable. "I see myself winning in Iowa," he said in Tampa. "If I come out of Iowa the winner, there's nothing standing in my way to the nomination. Very frankly, I don't see anybody else in it."
Poll Contradicts Scenario
Times pollster Lewis, however, said his results appear to contradict Robertson's scenario, at least as it applies to Iowa. "There are just not enough of his kind of people," Lewis said. "And if Iowa was made up of nothing but his kind of people, he would still only get 15%."
Robertson again projected an Iowa victory this week on a whirlwind two-day, 27-city bus tour during which he repeatedly declared that his campaign was not a one-dimensional effort.
"This isn't some narrow-based campaign of special interests," he told a crowd of 200 at a senior citizens center in Ames. "We're reaching out to all the people. . . . I want you to know, no special interest group has its hooks in me whatsoever."
But the crowds that greeted Robertson at a series of union halls, community centers, restaurants and other stops along the way consisted largely of religious brethren and longtime TV fans.
Lenta Jackson, for example, on hand at a rally here in De Witt, an eastern Iowa hamlet, said she was an ideological and spiritual soul mate of Robertson long before he became a presidential candidate.
"I believe exactly as he does and have for a long time, especially since they made abortion legal and took the Bibles out of the schools," she said. "I started watching Pat Robertson's TV program 14 years ago. God raised him up for this time in history."