- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 22, 2004

A new independent-expenditure group, backed by the John Templeton Foundation, is targeting what political analysts regard as President Bush’s electoral ace in the hole — religious conservative voters.

Let Freedom Ring Inc. will seek contributions to help “counter the millions of dollars being spent to attack and discredit President Bush by leftist organizations such as those supported by billionaire George Soros, Hollywood liberals and others,” said Colin A. Hanna, the new group’s president.

His organization has $1 million in start-up money from the Templeton Foundation, whose president is retired pediatric surgeon and conservative philanthropist Dr. John M. Templeton Jr.

Mr. Hanna, a Republican and former Chester County, Pa., commissioner, says his group “will not be simply a conservative version of MoveOn.org and the Media Fund that attacks Senator Kerry the way those organizations attack President Bush.”

“Instead, we will reach out to patriotic Americans, especially people of faith, and encourage them not to let these mudslingers turn them off to our political process,” he says.

Some Republican political strategists have estimated that in 2000, from 4 million to 6 million frequent churchgoers did not show up at the polls on Election Day.

A number of postelection surveys suggest that religious-conservative vote as a proportion of the total vote declined in 2000 versus 1996 — for example, by as much as seven percentage points in Pennsylvania and three points in Michigan. Mr. Bush, who had the overwhelming backing of frequent churchgoers who did vote, narrowly lost both swing states.

Bush strategists hope that recapturing that lost evangelical vote and even expanding on it, especially in the battleground states, could spell success for Mr. Bush over Democrat John Kerry on Nov. 2.

“Religious conservatives are a unique kind of ‘swing voter,’ ” Mr. Hanna said. “They don’t swing between Bush and Kerry, but between Bush and not voting.”

However, the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, criticized Let Freedom Ring as an attempt to inject religion into politics.

“Some forces want the presidential race to wind up in a round of Bible ‘Jeopardy’ in late October,” Mr. Lynn said. “And this is one more massively funded effort to achieve [Bush strategist] Karl Rove’s stated goal of getting 3 [million] to 4 million more Christian evangelical voters to the polls.”

Evangelical Christians make up 7 percent of the population and 86 percent of them expect to vote for Mr. Bush this time, according to a survey last month of 1,260 registered voters by the independent, California-based Barna Research Group.

The study reports that 88 percent of evangelicals are likely to vote, making them the religious group with the greatest voting propensity. They also are “the population segment most supportive of the president’s performance in office — 89 percent give him a favorable evaluation,” according to the survey.

Most independent-expenditure groups using soft, federally unregulated donations this year have chartered themselves as “527s,” an IRS designation for a nonprofit group that cannot coordinate its advertising and get-out-the-vote activities with any candidate or political party.

These groups can devote all their contributions to political activities, but must report the names of their donors to the Federal Election Commission — something many wealthy individual and corporate donors are reluctant to do.

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