Battle for 2008 Evangelical Vote Remains Open

If the evangelical vote is the key to the promised land for Republican presidential hopefuls, the network executives and religious leaders at the National Convention of Religious Broadcasters in Orlando, Fla., are once again serving as the gatekeepers.

We've been to this dance about 30 times over the last 30 years," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. "This is the courtship period where we see candidates approaching with their positions, trying to garner support, and we'll let that run its course."

There's not a clear frontrunner yet for the critical evangelical vote.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Arizona Sen. John McCain, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and Rep. Duncan Hunter of California all came to the convention, hoping to gain the favor of Christian conservatives.

But there are signs that evangelicals may not be pleased with those choices. Last month, James Dobson — president of Focus on the Family — said he would not vote for McCain under any circumstances. And some evangelicals have raised concerns about Romney's Mormon faith.

Not everyone sees it quite that way.

"What we're looking for are people with character who are principled candidates," said Stuart Epperson, head of Salem Communications, one of the largest Christian broadcast companies in the country.

When it comes to social conservative values, Epperson said, Romney is actually closer to evangelicals than other top Republican candidates. And even though Brownback is a convert to Catholicism, he has deep ties in the evangelical world. He also agrees with most in the evangelical movement on key issues such as abortion, stem-cell research and gay marriage.

"We have to recognize that all human life is sacred at every stage," Brownback told the audience at the convention.

That's exactly what people like Tammy Bennett want to hear.

Bennett is the founder of Makeover Ministries, which she describes as "inspiring women to look good from the inside out and to be supermodels for Christ. And it's based on Proverbs: 'just as water mirrors your face, so your face mirrors your heart.'"

Bennett said one of the important topics she wants to see addressed by the candidates is "the sanctity of marriage. I just see that whole thing falling apart in our nation, and families are the core of our nation."

Preserving the sanctity of marriage is a sticky issue for McCain. Many evangelicals say even though he's got a consistent pro-life voting record, McCain won't get their vote unless he backs a federal ban on same sex marriage. He says it should be regulated by the states. And many here haven't forgotten 2000 when he railed against conservative religious leaders.

So after hearing McCain speak in a closed door session, Ricky File's response was skepticism.

"He's saying the right things to excite this kind of crowd that we're a part of, but we've observed him too long to fall for it hook, line and sinker," File said.

Others said that while McCain still has a long way to go in repairing his relationship with evangelicals, attending the Orlando conference was a good first step. Still, there is no candidate who reflects all the evangelical core values and who has a name and bank account big enough to win.

"Our options are rather limited," said Erwin Lutzer, senior pastor at the Moody Church in Chicago. "We have to vote for the candidate that best represents us even if he or she comes woefully short of what we'd like to see."

And what about the candidates who didn't come to Orlando, such as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani?

If they didn't even bother to show up at the "dance" (as Perkins of the Family Research Council described it) they certainly won't be invited out for a cup of coffee when the party's over.

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