Republican presidential hopefuls are angling for the potent support of Christian conservatives, their wallets, leaders, and networks. And along the way, they are defining themselves as combinations of the truest disciples of Jesus, the most distressed Jeremiahs, and the wisest Moseses.

The Democratic and Republican parties have so frontloaded their primary elections for selecting presidential nominees that the race may essentially be over by April 2000, following the first dozen primaries.

Evangelical activists and conservative candidates are thus lining up their supporters as early as possible. In February in Washington, D.C., 20 would-be kingmakers from more than a dozen evangelical organizations summoned likely candidates, including publisher Steven Forbes, former Vice President Dan Quayle, Family Research Council (FRC) founder Gary Bauer, broadcaster Alan Keyes, Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire, and Rep. John Kasich of Ohio, to take a conservative Christian litmus test. Those presidential contenders who showed up were questioned on a wide range of topics, including such precarious subjects as whether to put a Christmas creche on the White House lawn in defiance of a Supreme Court order.

The group is still negotiating for former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, and former American Red Cross president Elizabeth Dole to appear at a later date.

SHAPING CANDIDATE IDENTITY: Bush, 52, and Dole, 62, both of whom have significant national name recognition, stand to benefit if the presidential sweepstakes progresses slowly. As front runners with money and GOP establishment support, Bush and Dole can afford to pace themselves for a longer run.

In recent national public-opinion ...

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