WASHINGTON -- In one of the most provocative moments of the campaign season so far, Republican presidential front-runner George W. Bush pronounced Jesus Christ the "political thinker" with whom he most identifies. The Texas governor peppers his speeches with evangelical phrases, talks of sharing his heart and defines himself in terms of his religious awakening at age 40.
But Bush has refused to utter the less ethereal words that have long been the most persuasive to the GOP's base of Christian conservatives: that he would rule out anyone who supported abortion rights as a running mate.
Bush's push and pull when it comes to his courtship of religious conservatives, considered the Republican Party's most loyal voters, might say more about this constituency than it does about the candidate, with the once-powerful movement today in a state of flux.
To be sure, the movement is still influential -- perhaps more so than ever -- in shaping the political landscape and dialogue. Never before in modern times have so many politicians talked so much about God or made such public displays of their faith.
But, just as the presidential candidates appear to be trying to "out-Christianize" one another, as one journalist recently put it, the religious conservative movement is waning in potency as an organized, grass-roots force on the campaign trail.
"Candidates want to appeal to America's religious convictions but don't necessarily believe that Christian conservatives have the same clout they used to have," says John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California.
The organized effort that has been a formidable player in the past decade -- raising money, mobilizing voters particularly in primary races, helping to elect the first Republican Congress in 40 years, forcing moderate Republican candidates to move to the right -- appears to be fading.
Part of the decline is directly related to the crumbling of the Christian Coalition, the organization founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson and built into a national force by the dynamic Ralph Reed.
The Coalition, famous for distributing millions of voter guides to churches, propelled Robertson's surprisingly strong showing in the 1988 Iowa caucuses and is credited with boosting the insurgent presidential candidacy of Patrick J. Buchanan in 1992 and 1996. Its grass-roots organizing and fund-raising were instrumental in helping Republicans, many of them religious conservatives, sweep Congress in 1994.
But in the past year, nearly all of the coalition's top officials have either resigned or been fired, and the organization is deeply in debt.
It lost its battle for tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service and dropped in Fortune magazine's rating of the nation's most powerful lobbying groups from No. 7 (where it was ranked for the past two years) to No. 35.
Although its strength varies greatly from state to state -- with more activity in the South and in such conservative states as Iowa and very little in states such as New Hampshire -- the organization's decline has left a striking leadership vacuum.
"The Christian conservative movement is probably as strong, if not stronger, than ever, but because there's no leader or organizational framework, it's less likely to be effective," says David Hill, a Houston-based Republican pollster and strategist.
"There's not a gatekeeper anymore in the movement. Candidates don't feel they need to check with Reverend Pat [Robertson] or Reverend Jerry [Falwell] or Ralph Reed to see if they're going to be OK with something."
But Republican strategists and conservative leaders say there is more to the loosening grip of religious conservatism than weakening of the Christian Coalition.
For one thing, they say, there is exhaustion and frustration over a string of legislative failures in recent years, especially the inability of the GOP to remove an impeached and scandal-ridden president from office.
"That was a morale killer," says Pitney. "Religious conservatives were disappointed Americans weren't as aroused against Clinton as they were."
Soon after President Clinton's impeachment and acquittal, Paul Weyrich, considered the godfather of the religious right movement, virtually admitted defeat.
In a highly publicized letter, he urged Christians to "tune out and drop out" of politics because it was clear, he said, that they had "lost the culture war." Evangelical columnist Cal Thomas and Pastor Ed Dobson followed with a like-minded book, "Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Change America?"
Weyrich says his frustration with politics, building for years, came from the realization that even a GOP-controlled Congress was unable to enact the cultural changes for which religious conservatives had been fighting.