CHESAPEAKE, Va. -- Trying to distance himself from the harsh right-wing tone of last month's Republican convention, President Bush tiptoed into the heart of the evangelical community last night with a message of tolerance.
He told a flag-waving audience of about 1,000 delegates to a convention sponsored by the Christian Coalition of television evangelist Marion G. "Pat" Robertson that family values should not be a narrow prescription for how people live.
"I don't mean we . . . should go back to the days of 'Ozzie and Harriet' -- that may be wrong," Mr. Bush said. "Nor do I pass judgment on the kind of family . . . you live in. Families are not measured by what kind, but by how close."
It was a late evening appearance intended to keep news media attention to the controversial forum to a minimum. Most of Mr. Bush's remarks were devoted to the economic plan he announced Thursday, which his campaign advisers want to drum into the public consciousness.
But the president nevertheless managed to push on the right buttons with a group that lists "family values" as its top priority -- ahead even of the economy -- and describes those values as resisting the "liberal" agenda for gay rights, abortion on demand and condom distribution in schools.
"I deeply support all the work you are doing to restore the spiritual foundation of this nation," he said, winning big applause for his promise to "uphold the sanctity of life" by opposing abortion.
Although Democratic contender Bill Clinton seemed to have no friends here, President Bush cannot afford to take this politically active and influential block of votes for granted.
Claiming a membership of 300,000 with chapters in all 50 states, Mr. Robertson's Christian Coalition is deeply involved in Republican Party politics, organizing a massive get-out-the-vote drive for the November election and waging referendum battles against gay rights in Oregon and Colorado and an equal rights amendment in Iowa.
The coalition technically does not endorse candidates. But it distributes literature that identifies each candidates' position on key issues, such as voluntary school prayer and homosexual rights, and makes clear whom it considers to be on the right and wrong side.
Mr. Bush's courtship of the religious right is controversial and has made an easy target for the Democrats, who charge that the president and the GOP are encouraging intolerance.
"The introduction of religion as this year's basis for the politics of fear and division is a serious threat to the principles that our democracy," Oklahoma Gov. David Walters said in a news conference yesterday at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington. He urged Mr. Bush not to attend last night's dinner here.
The strident approach adopted by Mr. Robertson, who said in a recent fund-raising letter that the Iowa Equal Rights Amendment would encourage women to "kill their children, practice witchcraft . . . and become lesbians," embarrassed many even in the Bush-Quayle team.
Bush advisers concluded that such talk by Mr. Robertson, conservative commentator Pat Buchanan and others during the GOP convention turned off many voters.
Vice President Dan Quayle has already been out trying to mend some of the damage by moderating his stance on questions such as abortion, which he now says he would just like to see sharply limited rather than banned outright.
Even so, many convention delegates said they would be out actively promoting Mr. Bush's election -- if only because they feared the alternative.