Will Christians Sit Out This Election?

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If John McCain cannot get the help of Christian conservatives in the Republican Party during the fall campaign, he and his wife will probably not be relocating to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue next January.

The Importance of the Christian Vote

No one doubts the political savvy that Christian conservatives have and can muster. They helped President Bush get re-elected in 2004 by literally knocking on just about every door in Ohio and the swing states to garner votes.

However, McCain has yet to fully embrace these men and women of faith. And Evangelicals have been slow to fully give their support to their presumptive presidential nominee.

"I don't know that McCain's campaign realizes they cannot win without evangelicals," said David Domke, a professor of communication at the University of Washington who studies religion and politics. "What you see with McCain is just a real struggle to find his footing with evangelicals."

Though McCain calls himself an Episcopalian, he attended Baptist services last weekend.

In a meeting with McCain's advisors last weekend, some Ohio groups voiced their concerns about the Arizona senator's record on abortion rights and other laws he supported that they think limit their way to express their pro-life views.

"There's certainly a little reservation about Mr. McCain. I think the VP choice is going to be important," said Chris Long, president of the Ohio Christian Alliance. "If they choose a conservative for the VP, that will help his campaign. It would go a long way of sending a positive message to evangelicals."

However, the top advisors of the McCain campaign team say their internal polling data suggests the senator has the support of three-quarters of white evangelicals in swing states. They also maintain that McCain is against abortion rights.

Campaign Mishaps

The candidate has made some mistakes trying to court high-profile conservative figures. McCain had to reject Rod Parsley and John Hagee's support after he was criticized for accepting their support after both ministers preached sermons on controversial topics.

"That was one of the most ill-advised faith and values adventures this campaign," said Jacques Berlinerblau, a religious scholar at Georgetown University who studies faith and the U.S. presidential campaign.

McCain has tried to mend fences with leaders of the religious conservatives from the start of his campaign.

"It's hard to believe he's really changed, from his absolute disregard and disdain for the traditional guard of the religious right," Domke said.

Republican Ken Blackwell, Ohio's former secretary of state, said he appreciates McCain's candor but doesn't think it's helping him with the base.

"He has never identified with the Evangelical and Christian movement and therefore he can, at times, misread or misinterpret certain activities in the political field of play or certain comments that are offered," said Blackwell, now at the Family Research Council, a conservative think tank. "I personally would like for John to get to the point of comfort with some of our issues and policy positions, through understanding and genuine acceptance."

It's clear that McCain's campaign lacks the faith-based outreach that helped sweep the last three Republican presidents into the White House.

For example, the senator failed to attend the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting. President Bush spoke on video to the meeting in 2004. McCain decided not to send any representatives to the this year's meeting.

Obama's Plan

Meanwhile, Sen. Barack Obama has launched an aggressive campaign to reach out to evangelicals.

Obama sent former 9/11 Commission member Tim Roemer to meet with fellow Roman Catholics. He also sent one of America's most influential pastors, Brian McLaren, to meet with fellow evangelicals.

The campaign has also held more than 200 "American Values Forums." These forums will soon be followed by small group meetings as well as town hall meetings targeting young Catholics and young evangelicals.

Obama's strategy is to split the vote among evangelical voters.

"Obama knows he can't win ," said Berlinerblau, who wrote "Thumpin' It: The Use and Abuse of the Bible in Today's Presidential Politics."

"If he can get up for 21 to 30 percent, he's gold," Berlinerblau said. "And that's exactly what he's doing. He's going to fissure off this progressive evangelical voter."

Source: The Associated Press

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