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Born Again

The ranks of Christian conservatives aren't dwindling.

Jan 26, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 19 • By MARK STRICHERZ
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While not all evangelicals are Republican or even conservative, it's certainly a group of voters that will be hugely important to the Bush campaign. What will it do to get them to the polls this year? In general Bush campaign officials and Christian conservative leaders are of two minds about this.

The former tend to stress turnout; the latter stress issues. As Bush-Cheney campaign director Ken Mehlman says, "We're encouraging voter registration big time in churches, mosques, and synagogues." This emphasis helps explain why Ralph Reed--onetime director of the Christian Coalition--has been hired as one of the campaign's 11 regional chairmen (Southeast). Talking with Reed nowadays is a bit like talking with a Chicago precinct captain: His favorite topics are numbers and the importance of knocking on doors. "In Florida," he boasts, "we have 65,000 team leaders, 7,000 precinct workers, and we've added 55,000 Republican registered voters since the election."

Although Reed also mentions the importance of the pro-family agenda, he is not nearly as insistent on this point as are many evangelical leaders. They say the Bush administration must emphasize its support for their issues: a federal marriage amendment to ban homosexual marriage and appointing pro-life judges, especially to the Supreme Court. Some bring up hot-button issues like support for former Alabama judge Roy Moore, whose judicial career ended in controversy over the Ten Commandments monument he installed in Alabama's supreme court building. "I would strongly implore [Bush] to come out on behalf of Roy Moore and to try to get rid of this illegal court order," says Rick Scarborough, the president of Vision America, a Houston-based nonprofit. "Judge Moore was removed from the bench because he would not renounce his belief in God."

In between these two approaches is the Christian Coalition, back from its organizational woes of the late 1990s. The group has budgeted $4.2 million for identifying and mobilizing evangelical voters in 24 swing states. Drew McKissick, the group's unflappable political director, thinks that they can be mobilized by Howard Dean's secularism and support for civil unions, as well as by better outreach. Says McKissick: "If they receive phone calls, postcards, and pamphlets," 80 percent are "likely to vote for the more conservative of the two candidates."

There is evidence that the coalition's new approach could succeed. Kellstedt, an emeritus professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, says his research shows that among traditionalist evangelicals, 89 percent who received campaign literature in 2000 went for Bush. By contrast, only 64 percent among those who didn't receive literature voted for Bush. Boosting those numbers could be particularly important given that only 47 percent of traditionalist evangelicals voted in 2000.

Evangelical groups, however, say that they don't have much money. Especially when compared with liberal interest groups such as America Coming Together and The Partnership for America's Families, it's not much of a contest. Those groups plan to spend $95 million in the election. "They're well funded and if they know what they're doing, they can get results," says Ruy Teixeira, a Democratic-leaning demographer and author of "The Emerging Democratic Majority."

Still, the Bush campaign will likely have far more money, about $200 million, to spend by election's end. If evangelicals can persuade donors to direct some of that money their way, Karl Rove probably won't be talking about their alleged decline next year.

Mark Stricherz, a Phillips Foundation fellow, is a writer living in Washington, D.C.