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Monday, April 13, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pat Robertson's 1988 `Army': From Rebels To Gop Mainstream

They were called the invisible army, those Christian conservative neophytes who stunned the state's political establishment and handed the Republican Party baton in Washington to television evangelist Pat Robertson.

That was four years ago, a strange time in a state known for its political contrariness and independence. The Robertson troops swamped the Republican caucuses and conventions and sent a slate to a national convention already locked up for George Bush.

Today the army, once estimated in the tens of thousands, is still largely invisible - but for an entirely different reason. Many of those captivated by Robertson's conservative agenda have remained active, but in the mainstream of Republican politics.

They are on the GOP's executive board, they chair legislative districts and run political campaigns. Some have drifted to another Pat, conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan.

Others have taken up moral causes, such as fighting Initiative 120, the abortion-rights measure that was narrowly approved last fall. Still others have embraced the Christian Coalition, a new group founded by Robertson to promote Christian values.

Many, of course, dropped out of politics as quickly as they dropped in, frustrated that their candidate failed to catch on nationwide. For many of these, political activism will be limited to the voting booth.

"A lot of people who were neophytes in politics felt that politics as an entity was a bad thing," said J. Vander Stoep, who ran conservative Republican Bob Williams' campaign for Congress in 1990 and now serves as an aide to Sen. Slade Gorton. "So it may well be a lot of the rank and file hasn't found anyone since Robertson to bring them forth."

What Robertson did in Washington state was create a new right wing of the Republican Party, building a loyal following from the state's growing fundamentalist ranks, anti-abortion groups, and other conservatives who felt left out of politics.

Buoyed by their success in the caucuses, the Robertson conservatives unsuccessfully tried to wrest control of the state Republican Party from former chairwoman Jennifer Dunn, leaving some bitter feelings.

Of course, the conservatives see that fight differently.

"We hear every so often how Robertson people tried to take over the party, but it wasn't true," said Jan Johnson, an alternate at the 1988 convention who was drawn into politics because of her support for Robertson and his conservative values. Today she sits on the state Republican executive board.

"I don't think there was an all-out effort to keep (Robertson) people involved. And that's sad," said Johnson, who represents the new generation of conservatives who have blended into the party. "I felt we needed some changes and the only way to get changes was to get involved."

CAUCUS SYSTEM MISSED

"The good ones will stay involved," said Republican consultant Brett Bader, asserting that President Bush has been good to the Robertson faithful. Not only did he appoint a vice president to their liking, Bader says Bush has been loyal on core values important to them - abortion and a strong commitment to family values.

Longtime Republican activist Bob Anderson ran the King County campaign for Robertson. Today he's out of politics, tired and disheartened.

"I feel I've done my bit," said Anderson, who started working on political campaigns in 1960. "We did a good job for Robertson, and they took the caucus system away, so I said, phooey. The caucuses this year were dullsville, just a farce. It took the heart out of everyone when they started the presidential primary."

Although no one can say for certain what caused the state to switch to a presidential primary this year, many credit (or blame) the Robertson army, which showed how powerful the caucus system can be for a well-organized, committed group of loyalists.

Some 60,000 people flocked to their Republican caucuses in 1988. This year, because the Republican caucuses didn't amount to anything, only about 15,000 people showed up.

"The party was trying to get out new blood and we did that the best way we could," said Matt Dentino, a born-again Christian who, when he was 27, was the youngest member of the 1988 Robertson delegation.

"There were folks who really sweated blood for this, and look what they did: They changed to the primary. We felt we did things by the book in 1988."

Dentino, who said he was a wild-eyed radical until he was born again as a Christian, worked on Buchanan's campaign in Virginia and now is involved in a congressional campaign there.

He still recalls the heady times of 1988, when he worked on his first national campaign. Church to church, he recruited the Robertson army.

"We would find the spark plugs, the John the Baptists in the church," he said. "There was always one Rambo kind of person and we would plug them in. It was fun and exciting."

Although many Robertson supporters have stayed active in state politics, others have not - most notably Bruce Hawkins, former state coordinator for the evangelist.

While still committed to the Christian agenda, Hawkins has, like Dentino, moved to Virginia. He worked as national field director for Buchanan until that campaign sputtered and today he's running a congressional campaign.

After leading Robertson troops in 1988, Hawkins worked for the Washington Policy Council, a conservative group whose members led the aborted drive to oust Dunn. The group later fired Hawkins, then dissolved in 1989 in the midst of organizational and financial turmoil.

MOBILIZING THE TROOPS

Many of the state's Robertson alumni have lost touch with Hawkins and with each other. That doesn't surprise Hawkins.

"How many troops stay in line with any candidate who wins or loses?" he said. "There's not a huge amount of Robertson-type people who remained heavily involved. But there's a certain amount who come out when it's necessary to come out in force."

That's why, he said, the opponents of the abortion-rights initiative were able to mobilize such an army last fall.

"Tons of people were trained in the Robertson campaign," Hawkins said. "They just don't go by Robertson anymore, they're just Republican people. I'm not known as a Robertson person anymore, but as the guy from the Buchanan campaign, or the guy doing pro-life ministry. Every so often I drag out Robertson for my resume."

Bill Valley is one of the new breed. While he wasn't active in the Robertson campaign, he has taken up the Christian banner. He worked against Initiatives 120 and 119, the so-called "death with dignity" measure, and is the director of the King County Christian Coalition.

The coalition, started by Robertson after the 1988 election, is working to elect Christian conservatives and push Christian issues.

"The Christian Coalition is Pat Robertson's attempt to let the people who were involved in the campaign know he didn't mean to leave them hanging," said Valley, who lives in Federal Way. "I've seen a need to be involved in the political system, and by and large Christians have abdicated that role. We want to let Christians know how they can have a political impact, a voice."

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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