Working miracles in snowbound Iowa

MARCI McDONALD February 8 1988

Working miracles in snowbound Iowa

MARCI McDONALD February 8 1988

Working miracles in snowbound Iowa

A blizzard had paralysed western Iowa. Schools had closed and Republican presidential hopeful Jack Kemp was stranded in Sioux

City on the Nebraska border. But on Iowa Route 3, the gleaming silver campaign bus of television evangelist Marion Gordon (Pat) Robertson lumbered on through the snow, crossing the state on a 13-town whistle-stop tour fuelled by faith and preceded by a snowplow.

At Carey’s Restaurant in Cherokee, owners Carey and Carol Hetrick had mar-

shalled 154 supporters to cheer the arrival of the contender for the Republican presidential nomination. Tape-recorded Sousa march music blared over loudspeakers as Robertson stepped onto a small portable stage, complete with flagpoles, which unfolded out of the bus’s luggage compartment in three minutes flat. And the audience punctuated his message— calling for a return to morality, family values and school prayer—with occasional “amens” and “hallelujahs.” Said Hetrick, a former Democrat who said he now supported Robertson because of his stand against abortion:

“He believes in the same things we do—absolute wrongs and absolute rights.”

Everywhere Robertson stopped on his recent cross-state trek through

the blizzard, at least 60 of the faithful braved the storm to hear him. That determination, of a small hard core of supporters, explains why rival candidates clearly fear him as the wild card in next week’s key Iowa precinct caucuses. With delegates chosen only by those who show up at the state’s 2,487 caucuses on Feb. 8, organization and turnout count more heavily in Iowa than in other states where upcoming open primaries are decided by a general vote. Said Robertson spokesman Kerry Moody: “It confirms what I’ve been saying all along. If it snows Feb. 8, we’ll win.”

Robertson has already scored an upset victory—in an Iowa straw vote last September. A poll in the daily Des Moines Register two weeks ago put him in third place among Republicans—well

behind Vice-President George Bush and front-runner Senator Robert Dole of neighboring Kansas. But as Robertson likes to point out, most of his so-called invisible army has never participated in politics before. Said Steven Roberts, Dole’s Iowa campaign chairman: “We don’t know who these [pro-Robertson] people are. They don’t go to traditional Republican events, and we can’t chart them. They just come out of the woodwork. And I am very concerned. There is always the possibility that Robertson could win Iowa.”

Making sure that Robertson’s sup-

porters do turn up at the state’s precincts on caucus night has been the job of Marlene Elwell, his Midwest director. A Roman Catholic mother of five, she is a political novice herself. Indeed, she was so nervous about getting involved in politics that she took an assertiveness training course seven times. It appears to have paid off. Said Elwell: “We can organize better than anyone.” Robertson himself sounded equally self-confident as he relaxed in the upholstered luxury of his campaign jet after finishing his bus tour across the state. He goes on from Iowa’s caucuses and the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 16 to what he calls “my natural territory”—the southern and border states where his evangelical constituency is strongest and where 20 primaries will be held on

so-called Super Tuesday, March 8. “If I can win Iowa,” he told Maclean’s, “there’ll be nobody between me and the goalpost.”

Still, most analysts doubt that Robertson can win the Republican nomination, although he could emerge as a kingmaker at the party’s convention in New Orleans next August. As for Robertson, he insisted that he still hoped “to be king myself.” As he pointed out, there are an estimated 70 million American evangelical Christians, “and it will only take about 44 million to 50 million people to win the general election.” Critics

say that, in fact, Robertson has been trying to broaden his appeal by playing down his image as a fundamentalist preacher. His publicity now identifies him as an author, law graduate and broadcaster—omitting all mention of his 29-year television ministry. And campaign workers correct anyone who calls him “Reverend,” advising that the correct title is “Mister.” But Robertson denied that he is trying to mislead voters. “Everybody knows I’m a religious leader,” he said. “But I only have two months to tell the rest of the story.” Still, last year when Christian Broadcasting Network reissued Robertson’s 1972 autobiography, Shout R From The Housetops, it dropped part of Chapter 20. In its original edition, Robertson said God told him to stay

out of politics—specifically the 1966 re-election campaign of his father, veteran Virginia senator Willis Robertson, who went on to lose his seat that year. But as Robertson told Maclean ’s, “My father, he was essentially a secular leader. He was one more statesman. And I felt the Lord was saying to me not to ally this fledgling ministry of mine with any secular politician.” Now, he said, “this is not one more candidate for office; this is me.”

Robertson still rises well before dawn each morning to pray for divine guidance. But his staff downplays that fact, as well as his claim that he can speak in tongues—the evangelical phenomenon of vocalizing otherworldly languages—and faith heal. In his most celebrated claim for divine intervention, Robertson said that his televised prayers caused the 1985 hurricane Gloria to veer out to sea, sparing the Virginia coast. But recently he also recalled that his first miracle occurred in Ontario in August, 1956, when he was attending an Inter-Varsity Fellowship Bible-study camp near Bracebridge, 200 km north of Toronto. His group had called a prayer meeting at a nearby resort, hoping to win converts among the teenage staff, and to ensure a good turnout Robertson prayed for rain. Out of a brilliant blue sky, he told Maclean's: “I heard this whistling voice. There was a little, tiny cloud that came rushing through the sky.” The cloud released a downpour directly over the resort, sending the staff scurrying from the beach into the meeting hall. Said Robertson: “That was one of the more dramatic answers to prayer I’ve ever had.”

The Robertson factor, as some analysts call his so-far unmeasurable impact on the campaign, has repeatedly caught rival candidates off guard. The latest surprise took the form of four half-hour paid television commercials, which began airing on Iowa network stations two weeks ago in the guise of a TV talk show. Called Perspective '88— and staged with a studio audience and three breaks for public-service announcements—the spots feature guest star Robertson bounding onstage to discuss education or foreign policy with a paid host. They are the work of Robertson’s communications director, Constance Snapp, a veteran of New York City’s Madison Avenue. And they are just one example of how his inexperienced team has startled opponents with its skill and slickness. Said Jeffrey Hadden, an expert on the Christian right at Charlottesville’s University of Virginia: “Anybody who writes off Pat Robertson as being not a serious candidate is going to be very surprised.”

—MARCI McDONALD in Des Moines