By People Staff
December 22, 1986 12:00 PM

Pat Robertson has lost five pounds this year. “I attribute that, maybe, to some bad food that I got in a hotel,” he jokes. More likely, it is the strain of convincing American voters, with greater or lesser success, that he should be taken seriously as a candidate for President.

Robertson, previously known as the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network and host of its enormously popular 700 Club, was born again as a politician last May, when he surprised Jack Kemp and George Bush—the most active Republican hopefuls—in the first round of the multistage Michigan delegate selection process.

Kemp and Bush had been expected to go head-to-head in Michigan, which had unexpectedly become the first presidential combat zone of the 1988 season. But Robertson forces, spending more than $300,000 and mobilizing the avid Christian soldiers of the local evangelical movement, grabbed first place—thereby becoming the year’s hottest political feature story.

Consider: The son of a U.S. Senator from Virginia, he was a Yale Law School graduate who, at 26, had seemingly renounced a golden future to convert to faith-healing, tongues-speaking charismatic Christianity. Out of almost nothing, he had turned a defunct TV station in Portsmouth, Va. into a $190-million-a-year broadcasting empire. Then, in 1985, his political genes reasserted themselves: The preacher thought aloud of the Presidency.

The prospect delighted some and appalled others. A social conservative somewhere to the right of Ronald Reagan, Robertson talked of tapping “a rage and frustration” building up in the country and getting back to a “Biblically based nation.” He belittled the principle of separation of church and state, and suggested that the President and Congress not feel bound by Supreme Court decisions. Equally remarkable, Robertson spoke of himself as a prophet and was capable of informing one ideological adversary that “God Himself will fight for me against you! And He will win!”

Bizarre as such declarations might sound, Robertson appeared to have something that the other presidential hopefuls lacked: the potential support of America’s estimated 40 million evangelicals. He wooed them methodically. Before his May victory, Robertson would tease church audiences by asking, “Should I [run]?”—to be answered with a thunderous “Yes!” Afterward he sent out a fund-raising letter exulting, “The Christians have won! What a breakthrough for the Kingdom!”

Perhaps, but in the year’s second half, Robertson was to learn that a) not all Christians felt themselves represented by him and b) many pitfalls await the man who decides, for his first political race, to run for President.

First there was Michigan, Part II, held in August. This time Robertson, hyped as a winner, finished either a well-beaten second or a distant third, according to differing accounts of the balloting. Perhaps more embarrassing was an exit poll indicating that he had a higher negative rating than both Kemp and Bush, and that even among his natural constituency—born-again Christians—he was favored by only 23 percent of the voters.

“Once he no longer had the momentum,” marvels one Washington strategist, “it was like he was on the bottom of a football pileup.” Robertson’s apparent collapse in Michigan was followed by a peculiar spectacle of indecision. For months the preacher had been saying that (God assenting) he would declare his candidacy in mid-September. On the 17th, at a cost estimated as high as $3 million, he appeared at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., where his image was carried via closed circuit to 216 other rented halls in 50 states. Supporters in every locale were urged to bring along a $100 contribution. Then, preceded by a black chorus, a mostly white chorus and a virtuoso trumpeter, and in an atmosphere of mounting suspense, Robertson announced—that he would not announce. Rather, he would decide in a year, contingent on the collection of three million signatures—and an unspecified amount of cash—from the faithful.

Washington opinion on the event is divided. Says Republican political consultant John Sears: “It wasn’t bad. It would have been too early for him to announce.” A reporter who was there recalls, “I thought it was kind of dirty to his own people. They were supposed to commit to him, but he wouldn’t commit to them.” For a few weeks afterward there was quiet on the Robertson front. He had collected endorsements from several influential fellow churchmen, including Rev. Adrian P. Rogers, president of the 14-million-member Southern Baptist Convention, and TV evangelists Oral Roberts and Jimmy Swaggart. (For the moment, at least, Jerry Falwell was holding out for George Bush.) Meanwhile a Robertson-supported court effort to ban several “secular humanist” textbooks in Mobile County, Ala. seemed to have a good chance of success.

Then, in mid-October, the calm was shattered when Robertson announced he was suing for libel. The defendants were U.S. Rep. Andrew Jacobs, an Indiana Democrat, and former GOP congressman Pete McCloskey. At issue was a letter written by McCloskey, who 35 years before—as a Marine second lieutenant—had shipped out with Robertson to Korea. In the letter, which Jacobs made public, McCloskey disputed Robertson’s claim that he had done “combat duty.” McCloskey wrote that in Kobe, Japan, the last stop before Korea, Robertson had made an overseas call to his Senator father. “My single distinct memory,” said McCloskey, who himself received a Purple Heart, the Silver Star and the Navy Cross in Korea, “is of Pat, with a broad grin on his face, standing on the dock at Kobe and saying something like ‘So long and good luck,’ and telling us that his father had gotten him out of combat duty.”

Explaining his decision to sue, for $35 million, Robertson called McCloskey’s allegations “totally untrue,” “a smear on the honor of our Marine Corps” and “…an attack by liberals to discredit me because of my strong support of national defense and our armed forces.” Responded McCloskey, “The court is a very good place to determine the truth.”

Truly, it has been a choppy half-year for Robertson, but nobody in Washington is saying he’s sunk. Although most Republican insiders do not take him seriously as a potential nominee, there is speculation that he could use the early Southern primaries and caucuses to gain control of more than 10 percent of the votes at the party’s 1988 convention. That could make him a kingmaker, with a shot at a cabinet post should the GOP win in November.

At this point Robertson sees no need to sell himself short. It’s been “a super year,” he says, “I’m very encouraged.” Already, he reports, he has 200,000 signatures and enough donations “to operate with a modest budget.” Although he would prefer to be quizzed less about his religious convictions and more on “economic, social and international issues, on which I’m informed,” he says he has discovered also that “I’m more resilient than I thought.”

He adds, somewhat oddly, given his activities of the last 12 months, “One thing I don’t want to seem to be doing is seeking public office. An office as great as the Presidency should seek the man.”

It will be more than a year yet before we—and he—can know whether it will.