The Texas governor initially wasn't scheduled to address the several thousand members attending this weekend's conference because he needed to prepare for the first presidential debate Tuesday, his aides said. But Bush ultimately decided to speak to the crowd in Washington, D.C. - from Texas.
Bush reaffirmed his support for the Christian Coalition's values Saturday in a three-minute videotaped address meant to soothe any hard feelings created by his absence from their convention.
Should I be elected, I will lead our nation toward a culture that values life, the life of the elderly and the sick, the life of the young and the life of the unborn, Bush said. He didn't explain why he initially hadn't intended to speak.
Coalition president and founder Pat Robertson said Bush thinks that he has the Christian base all locked up and wants to focus on winning undecided voters in battleground states.
I'm sophisticated enough to understand the strategy here, and it's a very deliberate and delicate strategy, Robertson said in an interview Friday. Whether that will do the job, I don't know.
Bush, whose campaign kept the coalition in the background at the Republican National Convention this summer, has focused on moderates and swing voters, as opposed to Republicans in past years who counted on the Christian Coalition to help get out the vote across the country.
This election is razor-thin, Robertson said. This organization can be the margin of victory and it's just unwise to take it for granted.
Dede Robertson, wife of the founder, echoed her husband's warning that Bush shouldn't take their support for granted. Speaking before Bush addressed the crowd, she criticized both parties.
We have one candidate who changes his personality every now and then and then we have another candidate who has distanced himself from his supporters and pals around with John McCain, she said.
Christian Coalition members attending the convention were more sympathetic to Bush and said he shouldn't worry.
I feel almost certain he ought to be on the campaign trail instead of here, said Shirley Hoch of Pittsburgh. These people are for him, and he needs to win over the people who are not for him. He doesn't need to worry about us. He's got us.
Among the Republican leaders who did address the group were House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, who declared this is the most important election since the Civil Wr.
A last-minute addition got the conference an in-person representative from the GOP national ticket: Lynne Cheney, the wife of vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney.
Mrs. Cheney called Democrats Al Gore and Joseph Lieberman hypocrites for attacking Hollywood executives for exploiting media violence and then smiling politely at fundraisers held by the same people. She promised that her husband and Bush would deliver what Americans want: Leadership that will tell the truth, stand up for life, stand up for values.
The three-day conference opened with an address by Robertson, who said this year's election could be the most important in a century because the next president may appoint as many as three justices to the Supreme Court.
The election could deliver more liberal judges such as Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, or conservative judges such as Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, Robertson said.
If you care about partial-birth abortion, if you care about the sanctity of life, if you care about preserving the family, if you care about the moral fiber of this nation, which in my opinion has been undermined consistently by Supreme Court decisions, this election can be the most important in the last 100 years, he said.
The Christian Coalition has been hampered in recent years by leadership changes and internal strife.
Still, many political analysts believe it would be a mistake to write off the group, which will distribute 70 million guides to churchgoing voters.
The voter guides are their most powerful weapon to elect George Bush, said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which believes the leaflets violate tax and other federal laws.
Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, who has spoken at past conventions but was not invited this year, later held his own rally in the same hotel. While not mentioning him by name, Buchanan didn't overlook Bush's absence.
Are we supporting folks who will not stand with us? Buchanan asked about 100 supporters. If they won't come speak to you, they won't speak about these ideas, they won't talk about these issues, can you trust them to fight for you once they get in the White House?
Directing his comments to Bush, he added: Why don't you try sending a video tape to the ballot box?