- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 18, 2012

One of the nation’s more prominent evangelical ministers is looking to reprise a forum for the presidential candidates on faith and policy next month, and analysts say that any religious or social tones struck during the event could help tilt a race thus far defined by economic issues.

Pastor Rick Warren announced this week that he is in talks with the campaigns of President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney to stage a “civil forum” similar to the one he held in 2008, when he conducted separate, back-to-back interviews with Mr. Obama and GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain on issues including religion, abortion and same-sex marriage.

While polls show that voters are more concerned about the economy than social issues, political analysts say ongoing debates over marriage, contraception and other topics could be a tiebreaker of sorts in a tight presidential race.

“The social issues are likely to play a secondary role,” said John Green, director of the University of Akron’s Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics. “But if the election is as close as people think it’s going to be, it could play a big role because you don’t have to move too many people to make a difference.”

Mr. Warren, a best-selling author and pastor at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., scored a major coup during the 2008 campaign when he landed interviews with Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain that touched on topics including the Supreme Court and stem-cell research but focused mainly on faith and moral issues.

Both candidates — who did not debate one another directly — were hit with tough questions at times, with Mr. McCain citing his failed first marriage as his greatest moral failure and Mr. Obama declining to answer a question on whether life begins at conception, instead responding that it was “above my pay grade.”

Mr. Warren later gave the invocation at Mr. Obama’s 2009 inauguration.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Warren said his interviews aren’t designed to catch candidates off guard but are instead an opportunity for thoughtful discussion without bickering.

“It’s about having a respectful conversation about issues that society is dealing with,” said spokeswoman Kristin Cole.

She said the pastor is looking to hold the forum the week of Aug. 20 and will likely know by Friday whether the event will take place.

Religion has thus far been a nonfactor in this year’s campaign, despite past questions about the strength of Mr. Obama’s Christianity and speculation over Mr. Romney’s electability as a Mormon.

A forum would put their views front and center, and likely renew debate over hot-button issues such as the Affordable Care Act mandate that employers provide health coverage for contraception, a stance that has put the Obama administration in open dispute with leaders of the American Catholic Church.

It would also recast the spotlight on Mr. Obama’s announced support for gay marriage this year after he told Mr. Warren in 2008 that he believed marriage was between a man and woman.

Any discussion of abortion could be a sensitive subject for Mr. Romney, who has acknowledged being “effectively pro-choice” before rebranding himself in the mid-2000s as anti-abortion except in the cases of rape and incest.

Even if the forum generates headlines, an April poll by Pew Research Center found that less than 40 percent of voters consider a presidential candidates’ views on abortion, birth control and gay marriage to be “very important.”

In the survey, voters rated 15 other issues as more important, ranging from gun control and Iran to education, jobs and the economy.

A March poll by the firm also showed that 38 percent of voters think there is too much expression of faith by politicians — up from just 12 percent in 2001.

While jobs and taxes now reign supreme, Anna Greenberg, vice president of the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner polling firm, said she expects issues such as gay rights and women’s health to return to view before Election Day.

Many of those battles are also being fought on the state level in ballot initiatives and local races, she noted.
“It’s not that these issues are absent,” she said. “It’s that they’re taking place in different states but have some national insignificance.”

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