Barack Obama‘s pursuit of evangelical voters has pushed the abortion issue to the fore of the campaign debate and risks mobilizing pro-life voters - who so far have been apathetic about Republican John McCain - to oppose the Democrat.
“Obama might think he´s making inroads by bringing up the reduction of abortion, but putting the issue on the table makes it fair game to explore how extreme he really is,” said Justin Taylor, a book editor and evangelical blogger.
Mr. Obama has talked about reducing the number of “unwanted pregnancies” and is trying to appeal to pro-life voters with a platform aimed at reducing factors that lead to abortions, such as poverty and lack of sex education for young people.
But the Illinois Democrat remains unapologetically pro-choice, and his voting record on the issue has come under increased scrutiny in recent weeks.
Pro-life groups point to Mr. Obama’s opposition in the Illinois legislature to the Born Alive Infant Protection Act and to his 2007 statement to Planned Parenthood that he hopes one of his first acts as president would be to sign a bill that would eliminate state and local government restrictions on abortion.
The Obama campaign touted its outreach to evangelical voters and maintained that the appeal to “values voters” has focused at least as much on the economy as on moral or faith issues.
“Barack Obama is committed to reaching out to evangelicals and people of all faiths on a range of core values issues, from strengthening American families to fixing our broken economy,” said Nick Shapiro, an Obama campaign spokesman. “We have a choice to make in this election: We can either choose a new direction for our country and our economy or we can keep doing what we’ve been doing.”
The abortion debate has exploded since Democrats changed their party platform to appeal to people of faith and the presidential candidates appeared Saturday at a forum at the Rev. Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif.
Mr. Warren asked Mr. Obama during the forum at what point unborn babies should be given human rights.
“Answering that question with specificity … is above my pay grade,” Mr. Obama replied.
Mr. McCain told Mr. Warren that life begins “at the moment of conception.”
The Rev. Russell Moore, dean of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s school of theology, called Mr. Obama’s answer an insult to evangelicals, Roman Catholics and other Americans concerned about life issues.
“I am hearing from evangelicals on the rightward end of the spectrum all over the country who were appalled by Senator Obama’s comments,” said Mr. Moore, who worked for Rep. Gene Taylor, Mississippi Democrat, before entering the seminary in the early 1990s.
Douglas Kmiec, a conservative lawyer who is pro-life but has endorsed Mr. Obama, called the Democrat’s answer “much too glib for something this serious.”
He added, however, that Mr. Obama’s entire response was more “thoughtful” than Mr. McCain’s.
Polls of religious voters have showed two trends: Mr. McCain has less support from conservative Christians than President Bush did in 2004, but the relatively high support for Mr. Obama as a Democrat has started to slip.
A Pew poll last week showed Mr. McCain leading Mr. Obama among evangelical voters by 68 percent to 24 percent. In June, Mr. McCain led 61 percent to 25 percent. Mr. Bush received 77 percent of the evangelical vote in 2004.
“The more conservative element of the Christian population is slowly coming to grips with what an Obama presidency might be like,” said George Barna, head of the Barna Group, an evangelical research organization.
“The initial excitement about Senator Obama has lost some luster to an increasing number of people whose vote is influenced by their spiritual perspectives,” he said.
An Aug. 11 poll by the Barna Group showed that while evangelical support for Mr. McCain has slipped since June from 78 percent to 61 percent, support for Mr. Obama among this bloc also has dropped. Mr. Obama has lost nine points among self-professed “born-again Christians,” 20 points among “active Christians,” 13 points among Protestants and 11 points among Catholics.
Collin Hansen, an editor at large for Christianity Today magazine, said abortion has surpassed same-sex marriage as the key issue for values voters this year, and may be sapping Mr. Obama of support among Christian conservatives.
“I’m picking up a lot more discussion about pro-life issues now than there was in 2004. It’s just an impression, but 2004 was the same-sex election as far as evangelical voters go,” Mr. Hansen said.
“I don’t think abortion makes it in the top three in 2004, whereas now with Obama’s track record on abortion and the way that his campaign has been highlighting abortion as a live political issue, it is moving it up those charts.”
An Obama campaign official said many evangelical voters are unhappy with the Bush administration’s handling of economic issues, and that Democrats hope to capitalize on those frustrations by offering a more fiscally responsible platform.
The Obama campaign has defended the candidate against attacks from groups such as the National Right to Life Committee and the Susan B. Anthony List.
A central issue is his voting record, specifically on the Born Alive act in the Illinois legislature. The legislation would have required hospitals to offer life-giving care to babies who survived abortions.
Mr. Obama said state law already protected infants in such cases and that he opposed the bill because it lacked a “neutrality clause” included in a federal bill that guaranteed it could not be used to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that made abortion on demand the law of the land.
The National Right to Life Committee has been highlighting documents indicating that Mr. Obama opposed a 2003 version of the act that included the neutrality clause.
Conservative columnist Pat Buchanan said Saturday that independent political action committees are “planning attack ads” on Mr. Obama’s vote.
Steve Knight, 33, a liberal evangelical who voted for Mr. Bush twice but is now supporting Mr. Obama, acknowledged that abortion is “really the one issue that conservative Republicans really can emotionally get people fired up in opposition to Obama.”