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Voting With One Hand on Bible in Oklahoma

Times Staff Writer

They crowded into a cavernous auditorium in this hard luck city for their marching orders, more than 2,000 soldiers in what was described as the fight for “the most important issue facing Western civilization in our time”: the preservation of marriage “as a holy covenant between God, a man and a woman.”

Pray, they were told. Vote in November. Write your senator; here’s the address. Men were advised to do the dishes at home, and women to hug their husbands, whether they wanted to or not. Equal parts religious revival, campaign event and counseling session, the greater Tulsa “pro-marriage rally” last week ) was living proof that a key way to influence the ballots of many Oklahomans is through their Bibles -- not their billfolds.

The state has lost nearly 20% of its manufacturing jobs during the Bush administration, and has lagged the nation in recovery. Tulsa and its surrounding communities, for example, have lost about 24,000 jobs as three major industries -- oil and gas, telecommunications, and aerospace -- took hits.

In many areas, that would be a blueprint for change, a sign that the incumbent should be shoved out of the Oval Office. But not in Oklahoma, one of the reddest of the red states -- the designation for places where support for President Bush is especially strong.

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Voters here tend to view boom-and-bust cycles as outside of the presidential purview. And in state polls, Bush’s lead hovers near 20 percentage points.

Oklahoma politics is “very much about religion and faith and character,” said Keith Gaddie, professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma.

Neither Bush nor John F. Kerry has set foot in the state since the Massachusetts senator effectively clinched the Democratic presidential nomination nearly six months ago.

Bush doesn’t have to come to Oklahoma to count on carrying it. And there seems little point in Kerry spending critical time and money in a state where the Democratic candidate for Senate advertises his support for gun rights and his opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

Voters such as Gloria Smith explain this political dynamic. While Smith’s husband, who works for American Airlines, recently took an $800 monthly pay cut, the homemaker from Sand Springs, Okla., just changed her voter registration from Democrat to Republican.

Smith said her family was “better off” than it was four years ago, “because we’ve learned to live within our means.”

She doesn’t blame Bush for the bad economy, adding, “I blame terrorism.”

Filing into the church-sponsored rally in Tulsa on Tuesday night, three daughters in tow, Smith said she planned to vote for Bush again “because of the moral issues.... He supports marriage between a husband and a wife.”

This state wasn’t always a GOP stronghold. Settled by Southerners and gaining statehood in 1907, Oklahoma once was solidly Democratic. But it long ago joined the Republican side in national elections -- the last Democratic presidential candidate to carry Oklahoma was Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

Reflecting old habits, if not political reality, Democrats still outnumber Republicans in voter registration. But many expect that could change soon.

Most of the recent growth in the state GOP has come from the evangelical movement rather than “country club Republicans,” Gaddie said. “Most Oklahomans report going to church at least once a week,” which has become a key indicator for Republican preference in presidential elections. Economically, Oklahoma endured the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, the oil bust in the 1980s, the tech bust in the last few years. Since Bush took office in January 2001, the state lost 3.6% of its total jobs, compared with a 1.6% job loss nationally.

Though Oklahoma’s economy is springing back, improvement is uneven. “What is the major reason behind the state’s poor performance relative to the nation?” asks a new economic outlook report by Oklahoma State University. “In a word, Tulsa.”

Once hailed as the “oil capital of the world,” the city’s oil industry has “evaporated,” said Mark Snead, director of the Center for Applied Economic Research at Oklahoma State University.

The aerospace industry was clobbered after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. And the telecommunications sector here was rocked when MCI WorldCom, a major employer, filed for bankruptcy protection after revelations of an accounting scandal.

“People in Oklahoma have experienced economic challenges and realize that in many cases it’s completely independent of who’s president the United States,” said Snead. “We understand economic cycles out here. And maybe this economic cycle is less damaging to Bush than it would be in other states that haven’t been through such a major economic restructuring.”

People like Chris Coggin, a mail carrier from the Tulsa suburb of Oilton, neither blame the government for economic setbacks nor expect it to take care of them. Coggin and his wife, Kathryn, plan to vote for Bush again because of his integrity and his Christian background, they said, not because they expect president to improve finances in their state.

“We’ve been through hard times in Oklahoma,” Coggin said before attending the pro-marriage rally. “My grandparents went through the Dust Bowl. We know it’ll work its way through, if we work hard.”

Coggin and Smith are part of Oklahoma’s powerful evangelical vote, Gaddie said, which is likely to be energized by several initiatives on the November ballot.

All of those initiatives were listed on the back of the thin program for Tuesday’s rally. Two measures related to a lottery, and two to Indian gambling. And then there is State Question 711, an “amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman.”

Or, as Pastor Nick Garland of the First Baptist Church of Broken Arrow told the cheering crowd as the rally swung into high gear, this is “marriage as God declared it -- one man and one woman.”

Garland leads one of the largest congregations in Broken Arrow, a Tulsa suburb of big trees, big churches and big box stores -- a community where a once-vital Main Street now finds itself overshadowed by Wal-Mart, the city’s second-largest employer.

At Picket Fence Gifts, business is sporadic, said Sunnye Beach. The economy is important to Beach, and she’s particularly troubled by America’s dependence on foreign oil. But moral matters are front and center when she reflects on her reasons for backing Bush, who she describes as a “great president.

Bush is a Christian and relies on God when he makes his decisions, and so does she, said the 26-year-old aesthetician and clerk, whose parents own the gift shop. Beach also supports the war in Iraq and Bush’s Middle East policies, which she views through a religious lens.

“If we didn’t stand up for Israel, then God would not bless and protect us,” said Beach, who interprets the Bible literally and fears that the “last days” could be drawing near. “I worry that if we don’t have a president who believes in the Bible ... how much faster will it come?”

Just up the street, where the Francy family runs a law firm and a child support collection agency, Vicki, Kent and son David all say they’ll vote for Bush in November, although none of them consider the president to be, as Kent put it, a “poster child for good government.”

Kent, an attorney, said he has confidence in the administration because he thinks that the president has surrounded himself with strong advisors. He also said he doesn’t think “either party could have sniffed out” the Sept. 11 plot.

The Francys saw first hand the pain of the 1980s bust -- as Tulsa’s oil and gas industry began to dry up, their property values were slashed by a third and many of their neighbors lost jobs. But Vicki doesn’t blame the bad economy on the government, she blames a region that has not diversified as much as it should have.

She won’t vote for Kerry because she doesn’t think he’s a truthful man. She supports Bush because he echoes her own conservative credo, a philosophy based on personal responsibility.

“The social policies that come along with a Democratic president are really bad,” said Vicki, who runs the child support collection business. “Just because things aren’t good now [economically] doesn’t mean they’ll get better, and I’m not willing to give away what I work for to someone who won’t work.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Simply red

Even though Oklahoma is heavily Democratic in voter registration, it is solidly Republican in presidential voting. The last Democratic candidate to carry Oklahoma was President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

Oklahoma fast facts:

- Population: 3.5 million - Median household income: $33,400 - Families below poverty line: 11.2% - Families with pre-school children below poverty line: 21.5%

Ethnicity: White 74% American Indian 8% Black 8% Latino 5% Others 5%

2000 presidential vote: George Bush 60% Al Gore 39% All others 1%

2004 voter registration: Democratic 52% Republican 37% Independent 10% All others 1%

Sources: Oklahoma State Election Board, www.presidentelect.org, U.S. Census. Graphics reporting by Maria La Ganga and Susannah Rosenblatt.


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