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Voting With One Hand on Bible in Oklahoma

Voters in the GOP stronghold say they identify with President Bush over moral issues.

August 29, 2004|Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writer

TULSA, Okla. — 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.

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."

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