COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. Oct. 24, 2008 -- Colorado Springs is a picturesque community with unusual power. Early explorers saw the soaring red rocks beneath Pikes Peak's snowcapped summit and proclaimed: "Why it is a fit place for the Gods to assemble."
That Olympian appeal may explain why more than 100 evangelical Christian groups have come to call Colorado Springs home, and their numbers have made them major players in Colorado and national politics. Their role may be crucial this year and could be an answer to John McCain's prayers.
The most recent CNN/Time poll for Colorada has Democrat Barack Obama ahead at 51 percent, while Republican McCain trails at 47 percent.
The Mountain Springs Church sits just east of Colorado Springs and has more than 4,000 members. It is a mega church, and its senior pastor, Steve Holt, encourages members to get involved.
At a church meeting this week he asked everyone to vote early and donate at least two nights of their time over the next two weeks to a local campaign phone bank. He did not specify a candidate, but many of them had already been volunteering and attending rallies with McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin.
When Palin visited the region Monday, Holt and his family were there with her, and many of his parishioners were in the audience. Holt described Palin as a "kind, mothering type of person. ... She has gentleness and a firmness that is uncharacteristic among political people, even women. ... She has a winsome spirit."
His congregants, including Marcia Williams, a 59-year-old grandmother, have nothing but good things to say about Sarah Palin. "She is the only candidate with executive experience and she's got the job done. She has a reputation of getting things done."
It's clear that evangelicals love Sarah Palin.
But they do not necessarily love John McCain. Little by little, however, they are coming to terms with voting for McCain, and their level of enthusiasm and the size of their turnout could mean the difference in this key state for the Republican ticket.
For the evangelicals come out wholeheartedly as McCain hopes, though, will require a change of heart.
McCain Wooing Colorado Evangelicals
James Dobson, a leader in the Colorado Springs evangelical community, endorsed President Bush in his successful run for the White House in 2004, and said during the primaries this year, "I am convinced Sen. McCain is not a conservative, and, in fact, has gone out of his way to stick his thumb in the eyes of those who are. I cannot and will not vote for Sen. John McCain, as a matter of conscience."
Bob Enyart with the American Right to Life encourages people to vote for a third party candidate, saying, "Don't vote for someone who funds and defends the killing of some unborn children. Don't vote for John McCain."
Evangelical followers have the same reservations as their leaders. Eli Bremmer, 30, who attends Mountain Springs Church and whose uncle, Paul Bremmer, had a leading administration role in the early years of the Iraq war, had "definite policy disagreement issues" with McCain. Jonathan Bertha, 35, did not vote for McCain in the primaries.
But faced with a choice between McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, who favors abortion rights, many evangelicals are warming up to McCain.
Holt and other evangelicals hope that if McCain wins office he will put people in leadership positions whose values more closely represent the church's. But he tries to remain optimistic, saying "we can make a better nation with either administration."
The Democrats also see faith voters as an opportunity. Obama's senior policy adviser, Josh DuBois, said, "Barack Obama is a committed Christian, and he shares the values of millions of Americans of faith."
Democrats even held their convention in Colorado in an effort to win the West. Each night the convention opened with a prayer. On the first night they asked evangelical leader Donald Miller to deliver the closing prayer and have since asked him to support Obama with a campus tour and speeches in all swing states.
Miller is very clear that "Obama is my candidate." Miller relates to Obama. Both men had fathers who left when they were 2 years old, and both are regulars at church.
Miller questions McCain's faith, pointing out that McCain will not talk about his faith or where he attends church. Miller believes Obama can sway some evanglicals in this election and said, "If Sen. Obama as president can rise above moral affirmation on the issue of abortion and he does what he is promising to do by reducing abortion through health care and other policies, he can win the evangelical vote in the next election."
James Dobson Sends Out E-Mail Saying He'll Vote for McCain
The McCain campaign has been heavily targeting evangelical voters, especially in Colorado. They have placed volunteers at churches to hand out voting guides and have recruited evangelicals to call and talk to like-minded voters. The Sunday before the election, they plan to blanket every church in the state with volunteers to make sure the message on McCain's values reaches every evangelical.
Since clinching the Republican nomination, McCain has taken other important steps to woo back this group of voters. In August, both candidates were invited to California's Saddleback Church headed by Pastor Rick Warren and McCain hit a political home run among evangelicals when asked, "At what point does a baby get human rights in your view?" McCain gave evangelicals exactly the answer they wanted to hear: "At the moment of conception," he promptly replied.
In contrast, Obama said, "Answering that question with specificity, you know, is, uh, is, above my pay grade."
Evangelicals' faith in McCain got a boost from the Republican Party platform, released at the GOP's nominating convention. This socially conservative document helped quell the fears of many evangelicals.
But McCain really scored with evangelicals when he picked Palin as a running mate, a woman who belongs to an evangelical congregation.
There are indications that McCain is winning them over in Colorado.
James Dobson has stopped short on endorsing McCain, but has issued an e-mail announcing that he will vote for him and is encouraging his followers to vote for McCain.
"It's probably obvious which of the two major party candidates' views are most palatable to those of us who embrace a pro-life, pro-family worldview," Dobson wrote in his e-mail. "While I will not endorse either candidate this year, I can say that I am now supportive of Sen. John McCain and his bid for the presidency."
And the congregants at Mountain Springs Church are voting for McCain. Williams is looking for "Men and women of integrity, strong character, strong leadership," and she believes she has found them in McCain and Palin. Bremmer will vote for the Republicans, invoking "character and integrity first." And Bertha said that he will vote for McCain based on family values issues, which include marriage and abortion, the biggest areas of concern for many evangelicals.
Getting Evangelicals to the Polls
Current ABC News polls show evangelical white Protestants prefer McCain over Obama 76 to19 percent. Ninety-three percent of those supporting McCain said they would definitely vote for him and 6 percent said they might change their minds.
What may help get evangelicals to actually turn out and vote on Election Day in Colorado is a personhood amendment on the ballot. That amendment would define personhood as a fertilized egg.
Evangelicals are hoping that this amendment will draw voters out the same way the ballot initiative to define marriage between a man and a woman drew voters to the polls four years ago. In 2004, the marriage amendment was on the ballot in 11 states, including Ohio. Carrie Gordon Earl, senior director for the conservative Focus on the Family Action, speculated that people drawn to the polls to vote on that ballot initiative may have helped Bush win Ohio and the election.
McCain needs a big turnout from evangelicals to overcome liberal voters in Denver and Boulder. This battleground state is traditionally red and rarely votes Democrat in the presidential election.
With 12 days left until the election, both candidates are headed to Colorado, and Republicans are hoping that the power of Colorado Springs' majestic peaks, red rocks and evangelical followers will be enough to win Colorado and help put a Republican in the White House.