GOP Wages War at Grass Roots Christian Coalition Uses Its Organizational Muscle to Back Family Issues, While Rival Republican Majority Coalition Wants Issues Such as Abortion, Gay Rights out of Politics

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`THERE'S a battle going on for what the Republican Party will be," says former Sen. Warren Rudman (R) of New Hampshire. The fight, he says, is over whether such social issues as abortion and gay rights will form a central part of the Republican message.

In the past, such a debate might have been decided in the proverbial smoke-filled back rooms. But in the age of Ross Perot, social issues are the subject of a heated duel in grass-roots organizing between the Republican Majority Coalition (RMC) - a group of centrist Republicans, including Mr. Rudman - and the Christian Coalition, a group founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson that speaks for many on the Christian Right.

In this battle, the Christian Coalition has an edge in experience - it has been around since 1988, while the RMC was founded in January - and organizational muscle. Ralph Reed, the coalition's boyish-looking executive director, reels off a series of numbers demonstrating his group's reach: 250,000 dues-paying members, a mailing list of 2.2 million names, and 60,000 churches the group communicates with. "We expect to double our membership this year," Mr. Reed boasts.

So far, most Christian Coalition activities have been targeted at local politics. For instance, the group often holds "Leadership Schools" to teach activists how to get involved in neighborhood politics. In 1992, coalition activists ran in some 500 United States elections for such policymaking bodies as school boards and city councils; they won 40 percent of the races, according to People for the American Way, a liberal lobbying group. Recently, coalition foot soldiers played a major role in backing a conservative slate of candidates in New York City school-board elections held May 4.

Now the Christian Coalition has moved onto the national scene. Earlier this year, the group opened a three-person lobbying office in a redbrick town house a few blocks from the US Capitol. "We're doing the Lord's work in the devil's city," cracks Marshall Wittmann, the coalition's director of legislative affairs.

Mr. Wittmann sees his primary job as keeping the group's members informed about its top-priority issues, which this year are supporting a balanced-budget constitutional amendment and family tax relief while opposing the Freedom of Choice bill. When it comes to lobbying, the organizational prowess of the Virginia Beach, Va.-based group takes over.

The Christian Coalition, for example, recently mailed 3.2 million "congressional scorecards" telling supporters how their congressmen have voted on "family issues." On issues the coalition deems important, it will send an "action alert" to members, asking them to contact their lawmakers to express their views. …