Battle for 2008 Evangelical Vote Remains Open There is no clear presidential frontrunner for the evangelical vote in the 2008 election. A recent religious broadcasters' convention in Orlando presented a chance to find out how some candidates' messages are being received.
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Battle for 2008 Evangelical Vote Remains Open

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Battle for 2008 Evangelical Vote Remains Open

Battle for 2008 Evangelical Vote Remains Open

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renée Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Republicans running for president know they have to talk about faith and values, and each candidate is trying his own approach. Here's the message of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Republican, Former Massachusetts Governor): Well, I think people in this country want a person of faith to lead them as their governor, as their senator, as their president. I don't think most people care what brand of faith they have.

INSKEEP: Romney's challenge is that he's a Mormon. John McCain's challenge is that he attacked evangelical leaders the last time he ran for president in 2000. He's much more conciliatory this time around.

McCain and Romney were among four presidential candidates who attended a convention of religious broadcasters this week in Orlando, Florida. Duncan Hunter was also there. Sam Brownback was there. And NPR's Rachel Martin was there.

RACHEL MARTIN: If the evangelical vote is the key to the promised land for Republican presidential hopefuls, the network executives and religious leaders here are the gatekeepers, a very familiar role.

Mr. TONY PERKINS (President, Family Research Council): We've been to this dance about 30 times, you know, over the last 30 years or so.

MARTIN: Tony Perkins is the president of the Family Research Council.

Mr. PERKINS: This is the courtship here, where we see candidates approaching with their positions, trying to garner support and, you know, we'll let that run its course.

MARTIN: There's not a clear frontrunner yet for the critical evangelical vote and there are signs evangelicals may not be so pleased with their choices. Last month, James Dobson, the president of Focus on the Family, said he would not vote for Senator John McCain under any circumstances. And some evangelicals have raised concerns about Mitt Romney's Mormon faith.

Stuart Epperson is the head of Salem Communications, one of the largest Christian broadcast companies in the country.

Mr. STUART EPPERSON (Chairman, Salem Communications): What we're looking for are people with character who are principled candidates.

MARTIN: Will they vote for principle over religious affiliations?

Mr. EPPERSON: I believe so. They don't demand, by and large, theological compliance, but they do demand a certain amount of very sincere ideological compliance.

MARTIN: Epperson says when it comes to social conservative values, Romney is actually closer to evangelicals than other top Republican candidates. And even though Sam Brownback is a convert to Catholicism, he's got deeper ties in the evangelical world, the right stance on key issues like abortion, stem cell research, gay marriage, and he's not afraid to talk about it, as he does here in front of supporters at the convention.

Senator SAM BROWNBACK (Republican, Kansas): We have to recognize as we do that all human life is sacred in every faith.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: That's exactly what people like Tammy Bennett(ph) want to hear. Dressed head to toe in silver from her blazer to her boots, the 45-year-old mother of two stands out in this crowd. Bennett is the founder of Makeover Ministries, which she describes as…

Ms. TAMMY BENNETT (Founder, Makeover Ministry): Inspiring women to look good from the inside out, to be supermodels for Christ. And it based on Proverbs 27:19 that says just as water mirrors your face, so your face mirrors your heart.

MARTIN: What messages, what ideas do you want to be hearing from presidential candidates?

Ms. BENNETT: One of the big ones I would like right now is just the sanctity of marriage. And I could see that whole thing just falling apart in our nation, and families are the core of our nation.

MARTIN: Preserving the sanctity of marriage is a sticky issue for John McCain. Many evangelicals say even though he's got a consistent pro-life voting record, he won't get their vote unless he backs a federal ban on same-sex marriage. And many here haven't forgotten about 2000, when McCain railed against conservative religious leaders. So after hearing McCain speak in a closed door session, the response from some, including Ricky Feihl(ph) from Amarillo, Texas, was skeptical.

Mr. RICKY FEIHL: 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 just, you know, fall for it hook, line, and sinker.

MARTIN: Others said while McCain still has a long way to go in repairing his relationship with evangelicals, coming here to 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.

Erwin Lutzer is the senior pastor at The Moody Church in Chicago.

Dr. ERWIN LUTZER (Senior Pastor, The Moody Church): Our options are rather limited. But at the end of the day, we have to vote for the candidate that best represents us even if he or she comes willfully short of what we'd like to see.

MARTIN: And what about the candidates who didn't come to Orlando? As Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council described it, if they didn't even bother to show up at the dance, they certainly won't be invited out for a cup of coffee when the party is over.

Rachel Martin, NPR News.

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