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Conflicted Evangelicals Could Cost Bush Votes

Times Staff Writer

With their ardent, Bible-based opposition to abortion and gay marriage, evangelical Christians are a key target of the massive Republican get-out-the-vote drive heading into next week’s election. Party leaders consider conservative Christians to be as near a lock for President Bush as any group can be.

But GOP strategists might want to have a chat with Tim Moore, an evangelical who teaches civics at a traditional Christian school near Milwaukee. He shares Bush’s religious convictions, but says the president has lost his vote because of tax cuts for the wealthy and the administration’s shifting rationales for invading Iraq.

“There’s no way I’m going for Bush. That much I know,” said Moore, 46. He remains undecided between Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and a third-party candidate.

Moore reflects a potential problem for Bush in Wisconsin and other closely contested states, where the GOP and conservative groups have invested heavily in turning out a record conservative Christian vote through mailings, voter guides, targeted phone calls and announcements by prominent evangelists such as Jerry Falwell and James Dobson aired on religious radio stations.

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Some of these targeted voters remain conflicted -- torn between their religious convictions on so-called values issues, and concerns typical of suburban moms and dads, such as jobs, healthcare, the Iraq war and the environment.

Some, such as Wendy Skroch, a 51-year-old mother of three who prays regularly at the evangelical Elmbrook Church in this heavily Republican Milwaukee suburb, blame Bush for failing to fix a “broken” healthcare system and for “selling off the environment to the highest bidder.”

Others are like Joe Urcavich, pastor of the nondenominational evangelical Green Bay Community Church, where more than 2,000 people worship each Sunday. He is undecided, troubled by the bloodshed in the Middle East.

“It’s hard for me to say that Christians should be marching against abortion and carrying signs, and then turn around and giving a pep rally for the war in Iraq without even contemplating that hundreds and hundreds of people are being killed on a regular basis over there,” Urcavich said.

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“I’m very antiabortion, but the reality is the right to life encompasses a much broader field than just abortion,” he added. “If I’m a proponent of life, I have to think about the consequences of not providing prescription drugs to seniors or sending young men off to war.”

That kind of talk, coming from a conservative Christian who might ordinarily be inclined to vote Republican, could portend trouble for Bush.

An estimated 80% of the evangelical vote went to Bush in 2000. But Bush’s senior political strategist, Karl Rove, said after the 2000 election that the president might have won the race against Democrat Al Gore by a comfortable margin had 4 million more evangelicals gone to the polls rather than sitting out the election.

This year, the Bush campaign and conservative groups have made enormous efforts to mobilize evangelicals, a group that includes more than 70 denominations, and which generally sees the Bible as the authoritative word of God, emphasizes “born again” religious conversion, and has committed to spreading its faith and values. Evangelicals are thought to make up about a quarter of the electorate.

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In appeals to evangelicals, the president’s supporters have pointed to Bush’s stance against abortion, his appointment of conservative judges and his support for a constitutional ban on gay marriage. And yet a recent poll found a slight slippage in the president’s support.

A poll published last week by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 70% of self-described evangelicals or born-again Christians planned to vote for the president, down from 74% in the same survey three weeks earlier. That was not only a slight decline, but lower than the 80% to 90% support that Bush campaign officials had been forecasting.

The evangelical vote could shift again before the election amid last-minute developments, such as the just-revealed hospitalization of Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist for thyroid cancer.

While his illness has underscored the stakes in the election for both abortion rights opponents and supporters, the prospect of losing a conservative jurist could be especially potent for evangelicals and others in the antiabortion movement.

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Also uncertain is the effect of comments by Bush, aired Tuesday on ABC, in which he said states should be able to grant same-sex couples the right to form civil unions. That position drew protests from several conservative groups that had sought a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages and civil unions.

Within the evangelical community, the complicated fabric of politics was underscored this month when the board of the National Assn. of Evangelicals unanimously approved a document laying out a new “Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility.”

The document embraces traditional opposition to abortion, gay marriage and embryonic stem cell research. But it also mirrors aspects of the Democratic Party platform, quoting scripture to endorse policies that encourage racial and economic equity and promote a cleaner environment.

“You can’t shoehorn the Bible into one political party’s ideology,” said Richard Cizik, a vice president of the association and an author of the report.

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In Wisconsin, as well as in other battleground states such as Ohio, Minnesota and Iowa, the evangelical vote may prove less reliable for Bush than in the South.

Unlike many churches in the traditional Bible Belt, where many generations of worshipers have aligned themselves with conservative political causes, churches in the Midwestern swing states have drawn many newcomers who tend to be more independent and moderate in their views.

Dubbed “freestyle evangelicals” by University of Akron political scientist John Green and Steven Waldman, editor of the online faith newsletter beliefnet.com, these evangelicals are often overshadowed by more vocal religious conservatives who focus on abortion and gay marriage.

Yet analysts say the moderates may make up about 10% of the nation’s electorate.

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“If you were to have a high turnout of evangelicals in the Panhandle of Florida and really high turnout of evangelicals in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin turnout simply won’t yield as high a percentage of Republican votes as the Panhandle of Florida,” Green said. “Bush will do very well with both groups, but it’s just a question of how well.”

The diversity of viewpoints has made campaigning to evangelical churchgoers more complicated than some GOP strategists initially anticipated. Some churches refused requests to provide member directories to the Bush campaign, fearful of losing their tax-exempt status and alienating members who might not be sympathetic to the president.

“If I become political in any direction, I’ll become 50% less effective,” said Marc Erickson, pastor of Eastbrook Church in Milwaukee, an inner-city church whose parishioners are white, black, Latino and Asian.

Still, most evangelicals are coming down in the president’s camp, despite reservations that some may have about him and some aspects of his performance in office.

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Cizik said he would back Bush because of abortion and other values issues, but he said he remained troubled by the administration’s lack of attention to global warming. He said an overwhelming turnout of evangelicals for Bush might force the administration to consider such criticisms in a second term.

Scott Arbeiter, senior associate pastor at Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, said he too would vote for Bush -- but that arriving at that decision was a struggle.

“I wish I could take the strengths of both platforms and meld them together,” he said.

Mark Brunner, a Republican operative in heavily conservative Washington County, Wis., north of Milwaukee, said the outreach to evangelicals was unprecedented. Volunteers, he said, are blanketing car windshields outside churches with GOP fliers, and calling thousands of voters gleaned from church directories.

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Several conservative Christian groups are distributing voter guides to churches in Wisconsin and other battleground states.

“Most evangelicals see John Kerry as a tremendous threat -- not only to the economic base and the war on terrorism, but a threat to faith itself,” Brunner said.

One voter guide, produced by a Washington-based group called the Citizen Leader Coalition and distributed last month inside bulletins at one Baptist church in Milwaukee, does not directly endorse Bush. But it uses language designed to paint Kerry as anti-religion.

It says that Kerry favors a procedure that critics call partial-birth abortion, and that he opposes “protecting marriage.”

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Kerry voted against banning the late-term abortion procedure. He does not favor a constitutional ban on gay marriage.

Ralph Reed, founder of the Christian Coalition and a senior strategist for Bush, acknowledged that the evangelical movement was more complicated than the stereotype allowed, but he said the vast majority of born-again Christians would turn out for Bush.

“There’s going to be a diversity of opinion on a whole lot of issues within the community, but in the end, when you bring in the traditional issues, it’s a very reliably pro-Bush constituency,” Reed said. “I think he’ll do even better than he did four years ago -- and that’s a lot, because he got 80% then.”

Even if they don’t openly endorse Bush, clergy at thousands of churches will tell their flocks to vote.

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At Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Mel Lawrenz, the senior pastor, said he planned to remind parishioners that the more than 6,000 people who pray there each Sunday exceeded the margin of Al Gore’s victory in Wisconsin four years ago. Bush lost the state by 5,700 votes.

But even for Lawrenz, who attended the Republican National Convention and delivered the opening prayer when Bush visited the Milwaukee area recently, the decision to vote for the president was not an easy one.

Lawrenz said he wished Bush was more contrite about the difficulties of the war in Iraq.

“I want to know that my president is troubled about the war,” he said. “Otherwise, we would in our future far too easily launch into international conflicts.”

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But if Bush is to make up the difference in Wisconsin, he might have to find a way to reach some of Lawrenz’s church members -- such as Wendy Skroch.

As she drove away from Elmbrook on a recent Sunday, she expressed frustration at her predicament.

A speech pathologist who works part time at a senior care center and has three children, Skroch said she sees firsthand the problems of the healthcare system. Her family’s insurance plan doesn’t cover their needs. Bush did nothing to fix the system, she said.

One day Kerry showed up at her office for a campaign visit. A woman asked the Democrat why he voted against the ban on what critics call partial-birth abortion. To Skroch’s dismay, she said, he didn’t have an answer.

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“I feel disenfranchised,” she said. “Sometimes I think the best thing for me to do if I can’t make up my mind is to just not vote.”


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