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Obama openly woos voters of faith

Sen. Barack Obama's campaign talks about religion at "American values" house parties. He courts young Christians during campus visits. And his backers put religious messages on social networking Web sites.

It's a seemingly curious position for Obama, whose biggest source of campaign controversy stemmed from religion, specifically when caustic sermons surfaced from his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Although Obama has distanced himself from Wright, the presumptive Democratic nominee shows no signs of backing away from the subject of religion, despite its link to his image problem. It could be his Achilles' heel or a vehicle that helps deliver the White House in November.

This year as concerns about the economy, the environment and the Iraq war overshadow traditional social issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and stem cell research, many of the so-called values voters remain uncommitted, polls show. Their indecision gives the Obama campaign an opening, made wider by Republican Sen. John McCain's reluctance to openly woo religious voters.

After many years of conceding those votes to Republicans who courted social conservatives, Democrats have begun seeking out voters of faith. John Kerry didn't in 2004, but other candidates, most notably Tim Kaine in the 2005 Virginia governor's race, have succeeded by not shying away from talking about religion on the campaign trail.

"Elections are won at the margins, and any small shifts can have an important impact in terms of determining election outcomes," said Corwin Smidt, director of the Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Obama's campaign leaders acknowledge they are being aggressive in attempts to win religious voters. But they deny playing politics with faith.

"There's been some sort of suggestion that this is something that's sort of new," said Danielle Gray, the campaign's deputy policy director. Obama "started out working with a group of churches on the south side of Chicago. This is something he has seen since he was a young man, that these types of institutions can provide much-needed social services to communities if they have the opportunity."

Faith outreach team

As part of Obama's campaign to win religious voters, his backers have created religion-centric pages on social networking Web sites such as Faithbase.com. Obama's faith outreach team also networks with potential supporters at house parties where the senator's views are shared with a focus on values. Obama's backers also promote his candidacy at Christian rock and gospel concerts and recently launched a project to appeal to young evangelical and Catholic voters.

Obama speaks regularly about his religious commitment. Last week, he announced plans to expand the White House's faith-based initiative office, a move experts say is clearly aimed at appealing to conservative Christians (and which in part prompted the Rev. Jesse Jackson's embarrassing criticism of Obama during a taping of Fox & Friends on Sunday).

Also last week, Obama spoke to the National African Methodist Episcopal Convention in a talk abounding with religious references, including his conversion story and a request for the group to keep him in their prayers.

The strategy is not without risks. Continuing to focus on faith leaves the door open for critics to resurrect his association with Wright. Obama's faith talk could also alienate some secular Americans such as atheists, agnostics and people who don't attend church, experts said.

"There's a significant number of nonreligious Americans who don't appreciate this kind of language and don't particularly care for things like the faith-based initiative," said John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in Washington.

Meanwhile, McCain, a lifelong Episcopalian who attends a Baptist church with his wife, won't cede religious voters despite less overt campaign efforts than Obama's.

"It's not that the McCain campaign isn't seeking the religious vote publicly," Green said. "It's just that he's doing it through surrogates. A lot of politicians do that if they don't feel comfortable" tackling the issue themselves.

McCain also has said he would continue President Bush's faith-based initiative, and he has been quietly courting evangelical leaders. In June, McCain met with several high-profile conservative Christian leaders, including the Revs. Billy and Franklin Graham. And he is counting on groups like the National Steering Committee of Catholics to help him rally the faithful, experts say.

His campaign, which employs a religious outreach director, did not return calls for comment.

Evangelical leaders

Some evangelical leaders have long said that McCain is no standard-bearer for conservative Christians. But he now appears to be picking up some of their support. Focus on the Family leader James Dobson recently criticized Obama, saying he misinterprets the Bible.

Although Dobson has said he does not support McCain because of his stances on some social issues, his comments stirred up conservative Christians, causing some to look more closely at the seemingly all-inclusive gospel Obama preaches. Many said they were not pleased with what they learned.

"I question whether he's even a Christian to start with," said John Hicks, 79, a Republican from Palm Harbor who attends Clearwater Community Church. In some places, "he'll be strong on being a Christian because that's the thing to do, and in other places, he downplays it. … I wouldn't vote for him."

As the campaign season continues, election watchers expect Obama to face more criticism about his religion and related policies. Obama's supporters remain undaunted, saying he should keep sharing his religious beliefs. But they admit talking about faith is far from a free ride.

"If the American people get some kind of an idea in the back of their minds that Rev. Wright and Rev. Jackson and Al Sharpton are going to (have) footsteps all over the White House, it's going to hurt him," said Sylvester J. Thomas Jr., a self-described yellow dog Democrat who attends St. Mary's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg. "He's got to distance himself from these guys, and he will."

Sherri Day can be reached at 813-226-3405 or sday@sptimes.com.

Obama openly woos voters of faith 07/11/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 25, 2008 11:27am]

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