Presidential Campaigns Court Evangelicals

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In this precedent-setting election year, many political observers believe the evangelical vote is up for grabs.

For the three major campaigns, it's clearly a key voting bloc. You can tell by reading carefully nuanced religious language on their Web sites and hearing some frank talk about faith on the campaign trail.

Sen. Hillary Clinton recently told CBN's David Brody, "My faith has sustained me, it has informed me -- it has saved me."

Sen. Barack Obama has talked publicly about his conversion to Christianity many times, including to a United Church of Christ audience last year.

"Kneeling beneath that cross on the south side," he said, "I felt I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will."

Dems Talking Faith Much More in '08

One of the biggest changes in '08: Democratic candidates talking about their religious beliefs in very personal terms.

Joshua DuBois, who leads the faith outreach for the Obama campaign, says the Senator speaks easily about his Christian experience.

"When Senator Obama talks about his Christian faith, it's real to him," he told CBN News. "It's important to him and he's very candid about it."

Click the play button to watch Heather Sells report and Gordon Roberton's interview with Amy Sullivan, senior editor at Time Magazine.

And make no mistake -- the change is intentional. Obama recently noted that many evangelicals believe Democrats are "anti-faith." He and Clinton are clearly working to change that perception.

McCain Not Explicit about Faith on the Trail

On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain has spoken about his Christian faith during his years as a prisoner of war. But on the campaign trail, he has not been explicit about expressing his beliefs or current experience.

"The senator may not speak in the exact, precise language that evangelicals are used to hearing," Brett O'Donnell, McCain's director of messaging, admits.

But O'Donnell believes McCain's positions -- particularly on the war on terror, abortion and judicial appointments -- are what matter most.

"It's one thing to co-op someone's language -- it's another thing to really share their values," he said.

In a close election, evangelical voters could prove pivotal. In 2004, President Bush won re-election in part by getting what the Barna Group estimates as 85 percent of the evangelical vote. But this year, their party loyalty appears uncertain.

Just last month, a Barna poll found 45 percent of evangelical voters would choose the Republican candidate, compared to 11 percent favoring a Democratic candidate. A significant 40 percent were not sure.

Reaching the Evangelicals

So what's the best way to reach this shifting group?

The Obama campaign is focusing on connecting with powerful leaders like Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church and Pastor T.D. Jakes of The Potter's House. It is also working to building bridges between faith groups at forum events.

"We have evangelicals, we have our Jewish friends, we have Catholics, and we have African-American Protestants and all kinds of folks together," DuBois said.

The Clinton campaign has also hired a faith director and conducted religious forums. Clinton's Web site biography references her spiritual growth and she's been candid in several interviews in regards to her faith.

She told The New York Times , "I believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and I have felt the presence of the Holy Spirit on many occasions."

The McCain campaign continues to work to connect evangelicals with information about the senator's positions on key issues. O'Donnell says many voters are confused about McCain's conservative record.

"You wouldn't believe how many people I meet who think the senator is pro-choice," he said, "when in reality he's staunchly pro-life."

Evangelical supporters like Gary Bauer and Senator Sam Brownback are helping to promote that record.

There's no easy way to reach evangelicals, with their diverging political beliefs and frustration with both parties. But keeping the faith with them may just prove the key to winning the White House in November.

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Heather Sells

Heather Sells

CBN News Reporter

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