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Democrats make religious push

Praying for Your Vote: Democrats take advantage of voters' lapse in faith in the GOP

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Conversion is a theme for many religious hardliners, but Democratic presidential hopefuls are on their own mission to bring some of the faithful into the progressive fold.

Religious conservatives have been a mainstay in the Republican Party since the birth of the Moral Majority in 1980, says College of Charleston politics professor Bill Moore.

"It was really the beginning of conservative success and Republicans have played the faith card ever since," he says.

Participation lagged in the 2000 campaign, when Bush all but lost the election. But a resurgence in 2004 likely saved his presidency and gave everyone else four more years of something to pray for — namely, relief.

But by 2006, Republicans had sunk deep in the mud with one political scandal after another. If it wasn't the power grabs of Congressional leadership, it was the personal stumbles of folks like alleged page-chaser Mark Foley. Meanwhile, others grew frustrated by the lack of traction on promises the Bush administration had made on faith-based issues. All of this combined to flip Congress back to Democratic hands and put the faith-based vote back into play.

A study by the Pew Forum released late last month suggests groups that loyally backed Bush in 2004, including some evangelicals, are more likely to support a Democrat in 2008. For example, the study notes that 38 percent of non-Latino Catholics supported Kerry's presidential campaign, but 52 percent say they'd like to support a Democrat in 2008.

And Democrats have been eager to exploit these opportunities. In August, Sen. Barack Obama's campaign held a faith forum in the Lowcountry, and his outreach staffers are contacting churches and religious leaders for their support, say Joshua DuBois, Obama's national faith outreach coordinator. In the past, Democratic candidates have deferred talk of faith to their opponents, he says.

"In too many cases, progressives have failed to talk about what it means to be a good Christian or a good Muslim or a good Hindu or a good Jew," DuBois says. "If faith is an authentic part of who you are, then you shouldn't be afraid to talk about how your values are formed and what motivates you."

The Rev. Julius McDowell of nearby Hollywood says that he can see Obama's religious background in most any issue the candidate speaks on.

"When he's talking about his faith, he's talking from the heart," he says. "He puts everything behind that and it really speaks to the grassroots voters."

Though she often says she doesn't like to wear her faith on her sleeve, Sen. Hillary Clinton also talks about her faith on the campaign trail and she's developed a faith steering committee that distributes a weekly wrap-up called Faith, Family, and Values. The Rev. Willie Hill of New Israel Reform Episcopal Church, a Clinton supporter, says that her struggles through the Monica Lewinsky scandal have proven Clinton's faith-based chops.

"It's the sense of family, even in her struggles with her husband," he says. "It was her faith that kept her together, that kept her family together."

Candidates really shouldn't worry about turning off the crowd that doesn't head to church, says Moore. These voters often overlook personal professions of faith as long as it isn't followed by action.

"If it translates to policy issues, like prayer in schools, it might turn them off," Moore says.

Speaking of faith without tipping your hat to policy positions is a delicate balance. Former Sen. John Edwards was singled out in July's YouTube debate in Charleston for comments he had made suggesting that his opposition to gay marriage was rooted in his religious upbringing. It led to Edwards clarifying explicitly that he wouldn't let his religious beliefs dictate policy decisions.

"(It's) a very important question — whether it's right for any of our faith beliefs to be imposed on the American people when we're president of the United States," Edwards told the crowd. "I do not believe that's right."

Switching to the Democratic ticket isn't a big leap for most values voters. Many are blue-collar workers who tend to support Democrats, but they've chosen in the past to vote with their deacon instead of their wallet. The problem this year is that their deacon may not be hitting the polls at all.

"There really isn't a major Republican candidate that Christians are comfortable with," Moore says.

Rudy Giuliani's got divorce baggage, Mitt Romney's a Mormon, and John McCain hasn't been able to assure Republicans of his socially conservative credentials. Meanwhile, those candidates who are speaking directly to faith-based voters, former Gov. Mike Huckabee and Sen. Sam Brownback, haven't been able to find the funding necessary to get their name in the same ballpark as the questionably conservative frontrunners.

With this malaise, it may be less important for Democrats to woo these voters than it is to just watch them stay home come election day.

"Either one works to the advantage of a Democratic candidate," says Moore.

So, what can preserve the GOP's religious voting block? Fred Thompson's expected entrance into the race should draw some conservatives disinterested in the rest of the crowd. Attempts to defame the Democratic candidate — in essence trying to scare religious conservatives to the polls ­— has also been a tool used the past.

But the more that Democrats speak about their personal faith, the more they can blunt these attacks by proving that faith and values aren't party specific.

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