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THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

Conflicted Evangelicals Could Cost Bush Votes

Conservative Christians are still in his camp, but some are troubled by Iraq and other issues.

October 27, 2004|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

BROOKFIELD, Wis. — 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.

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.

"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.

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.

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."

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