- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In the general election, Republicans will be wise not to take the white evangelical vote for granted. During the May 20 Kentucky primary, Barack Obama released campaign material touting his Christian faith. This is part of his plan to begin a nationwide effort to inform the electorate about his convictions and to explain how his faith is expressed in the Democratic platform.

Mr. Obama is ready to seize the controversies which have erupted over his religious beliefs as an opportunity to woo evangelicals from the Republican fold. Since January 2007, the Illinois senator has been plagued with questions pertaining to his faith. He was falsely accused of being a Muslim; he is Christian. He has been charged with having the same radical views as his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. He has also been assailed as an elitist who does not understand the average American Christian (following his comments in San Francisco where he said people “cling” to guns and religion in moments of distress).

Mr. Obama seeks to redeem his image in order to attract white, blue-collar voters and white evangelicals. Moreover, he is preparing a general-election strategy that will rebrand the Democratic Party as inclusive of those who integrate religion with politics. It is a theme he touted earlier in his political career: Republicans do not have a monopoly on the Christian vote or the Christian agenda. In his June 2006 speech “Call to Renewal,” Mr. Obama forcefully told fellow Democrats that they must not hesitate to bring religious faith into the pubic arena - especially to explain how their political ideas are driven by “moral” dictates. He said: “As progressives, we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse.”

Thus, Mr. Obama intends to challenge the current political alignment. White evangelicals are part of the core Republican electorate; in 2004, 78 percent voted for George Bush. The pro-life and anti-gay marriage stalwarts among them are unlikely to be lured by Mr. Obama’s candidacy. However, the Obama camp is ready to compete for younger, more moderate evangelicals who are anti-war and who regard caring for the weak and underprivileged as cardinal Christian imperatives. According to research conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, if evangelical support for John McCain drops to 68 percent in the fall, this could be problematic for the Republicans. The latest Rasmussen poll indicates that Mr. McCain is not as appealing to these voters as was Mr. Bush: 69 percent of evangelicals state they will vote for the Arizona senator. These signs are further confirmed by the Center for American Progress Action Fund/Faith in Public Life poll: There has been more interest among evangelicals in the Democratic primaries than there has been in the past.

Mr. McCain, has thus far given no indication that he will be able to successfully compete with this unusual phenomenon in American politics: a Democrat who fuses outstanding oratory with messianic, Christian zeal. In order to boost his chances, Mr. McCain will have to offer voters more than boilerplate Republican pragmatism.

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