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Ashcroft Gains an Early Lead in Republican Nomination Race

By Thomas B. Edsall
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.),has taken a commanding lead in the battle to win the support of Christian right leaders, eclipsing two better-known rivals in what amounts to the first Republican presidential primary for 2000.

Adroitly using his Senate seat as a pulpit to hammer on moral and budget issues, Ashcroft has emerged from relative obscurity to lay claim to a conservative constituency sought by magazine heir Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes and former Vice President Dan Quayle.

Loudest and clearest have been his attacks on President Clinton. Just days after the Monica S. Lewinsky controversy broke, the former Missouri governor set himself apart from the competition and the Republican leadership by raising the question of impeachment.

More recently he has made the single harshest charge against the president, denouncing him as a sexual "predator."

The most dramatic signal of Ashcroft's strength was the disclosure Monday that religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, chairman of the Christian Coalition and founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, and his wife, Adelia, had donated $10,000 to Ashcroft's political action committee, the Spirit of America PAC.

In another recent coup, Gretchen Purser has signed on to run direct mail for the PAC. Purser won fame on the right as director of development for the Christian Coalition, where she built the mailing list from roughly 200,000 names to 4 million.

More important, interviews with Christian and social conservative leaders, many of whom are trying to agree on a single candidate to endorse before the start of the primaries, suggested that the Missouri senator has far stronger support than his competitors.

Ashcroft has wooed this core Republican constituency by taking the lead on a range of issues, from tax cuts for married couples to killing the National Endowment for the Arts, that are top priorities for social conservatives, many of whom are frustrated and angry with the Republican House and Senate leadership.

Ashcroft has shown no hesitancy calling for support of the traditional two-parent family, for protection of religious expression at home and abroad and standing against abortion in a forthright manner that conservatives have been seeking in their elected officials.

"He is developing a convincing following in the leadership of the pro-family movement, and conservative leaders are paying a lot of attention to him," said Mike Farris, who runs the Madison Project, a conservative political action committee, and the non-partisan Home School Legal Defense Association.

Farris said he is currently "leaning heavily in his [Ashcroft's] favor."

"I like Sen. Ashcroft, I like Ashcroft very much," said Phyllis Schlafly, head of the Eagle Forum and a stalwart of the anti-abortion movement.