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Candidates Reach for Tennessee's Evangelical Voters

Conservative Evangelical Vote Still the Republican Party's to Lose

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Dennis Barbee cares about low taxes. He also wants a strong economy and solid national security.

Above all else, the registered nurse from Spring Hill, Tenn., is basing his vote this November on moral issues.

"Making sure human beings have a right to live is important to me," Barbee says. He isn't yet sure who he'll vote for, but the candidate he backs will be "a godly person that definitely has Jesus Christ as their savior," he says.

For conservative evangelical voters such as Barbee, presidential elections often hinge on social issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage.

Traditionally, the beliefs of the conservative evangelical bloc, which includes a diverse number of Protestant groups, have lined up with the Republican platform, says Marc Hetherington, a Vanderbilt University political scientist.

Candidates push hard for the evangelicals' votes in Tennessee, the South and other states, such as Ohio and Kansas, says Heather Larsen-Price, a University of Memphis political scientist.

The conservative evangelical vote is still likely the GOP's to lose this year, Larsen-Price says. But Democrats who oppose abortion have tried to close the gap by adding a parenting plank to the 2008 party platform, Larsen-Price says. While it still endorses Roe v. Wade, the plank affirms support for women who choose to have children.

Democrat Barack Obama has spoken often about family values and social justice issues such as poverty, issues that resonate with a new generation of Christian voters, says James Hudnut-Beumler, dean of the Vanderbilt University's Divinity School.

"Moderate evangelicals can swing either way, particularly in an election like this" where issues such as war and the economy are critical, Hudnut-Beumler says.

Jessica Kelley disagrees with Obama's stance on abortion, but the wife of a United Methodist pastor says she more concerned about poverty, health care and the war.

"I consider those moral issues … a truly pro-life culture seeks not only to reduce abortions, but also to save lives at risk from hunger and lack of adequate health care and from the violence of war," says Kelley, who voted for George W. Bush in 2000 but plans to vote for Obama.

Broad base of support

Republican John McCain led rival Obama in Tennessee 58% to 39% according to a Sept. 29 Rasmussen Reports poll. That's consistent with previous years. Bush won the state with 57% of the vote in 2004 and 51% in 2000, when native Tennessean Al Gore was the Democratic candidate. The Democrats last won the state in 1996, when Democrat Bill Clinton won 48% of the Tennessee vote, beating Bob Dole, who had 46%, and Ross Perot, who took nearly 6%.

A Middle Tennessee State University poll in September — which then showed McCain leading Obama 48% to 36% in the state — found that 54% of "strongly evangelical Christians" from the state who attend church regularly say they personally consider abortion an important issue, compared with 31% of people who attend church regularly who identify less strongly with evangelical Christianity.

It also found that about one-third of the evangelicals surveyed said they were "strong Republicans" and that 41% of Tennesseans said they think politicians say too little about religion.

Still, McCain may have work to do to win over those evangelicals who helped boost Bush to the White House.

"Bush was very much seen by evangelicals as one of them," Hetherington says. "McCain on the other hand … his faith is something that is much more private to him."

But McCain's vice presidential pick, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who is staunchly opposed to abortion, pumped new energy into many white evangelical Protestants who had been lukewarm about the GOP candidate. In a September survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 27% of McCain's white evangelical supporters say they almost wish Palin could be the party's nominee.

"What makes them passionate about (moral issues) is the idea of living in a country whose laws permit what they believe to be immoral," says Vanderbilt's Hudnut-Beumler.

Group can 'make an election'

What makes conservative evangelical voters formidable, Hudnut-Beumler says, is the fact that they are generally on the same page politically. If a candidate can connect with them, and they deliver at the polls, he says, evangelicals can "make an election."

"I think evangelicals are more energized than I have seen them in a long time," says Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. The commission has organized a 40-day prayer vigil that encourages Christians and congregations to pray for, among other things, a national turning toward God.

Keeping those conservative voters energized through November will be a key task for the GOP, Vanderbilt's Hudnut-Beumler says. It is doubtful that they would migrate en masse to the left, the dean says — but if they don't stay engaged, they could sit out this year's election, and that could create problems for the Republicans in some states.

"It is (McCain's) to lose," he says. "The bottom line on religion and politics in elections is that who wins is often a matter of who shows up."

Carey reports for The Tennessean in Nashville

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