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Praying on the sideline

Social conservatives frustrated over their diminished role

NEW YORK -- A dozen Republicans gathered in a hotel meeting room a block from Madison Square Garden yesterday and prayed that God would intercede to give George W. Bush another term.

''We pray for George Bush, God," intoned the Rev. Wayne Perryman, sparking murmurs of assent from others. ''Give him the confidence that you're on his side."

Other speakers asked God to ensure that Republicans pick up a few more Senate seats to help stop Democratic filibusters against Bush's judicial nominees, singling out Alan Keyes's bid to defeat Barack Obama in Illinois. They asked God to ''touch America" this election to reinvigorate traditional values.

In all, it was much what one would expect to see at a convention of a party overwhelmingly supported by social conservatives. Yet these daily prayer meetings at the New Yorker Hotel, sponsored by the National Federation of Republican Assemblies, are a rare exception to a pattern that some social conservatives here are finding frustrating.

Since the convention began Monday, they say they have not only been kept from the spotlight of prime-time speaking spots, but have been offered few official outlets at all. The lineup of meetings where delegates spend the day before the nightly rallies have offered scant forum to those who want to discuss faith and politics.

Of course, national conventions have often been crafted by both parties to appeal to moderate swing voters. A recent Zogby poll found that 60 percent of undecided voters felt that a president should keep religious values separate from politics, compared with 29 percent who wanted their president to emphasize religious values.

But pollsters have also found that the pool of undecideds is much smaller this year than in previous elections, just 3 percent of likely voters in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll. That suggests that the party better able to mobilize high turnout among its base, not the party that wins ambivalent voters, will emerge victorious.

Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist, has said that 4 million evangelicals whom he expected to vote did not turn out in 2000, a group he has since tried to better motivate. Nationwide, there are about 54 million evangelicals, according to University of Akron political science professor John Green, and they turn out at slightly higher rates than other groups.

Given that importance, Rod McDougal, head of the Pastoral Congressional Prayer Conference, complained yesterday that convention organizers were suppressing any discussion of religion sharp enough to appeal to that group.

''I think they're making a mistake," he said. ''We didn't realize they were going to eliminate and censor everything about God . . . They need some people of faith up there."

Prime-time speeches have been carefully scrubbed to present pluralistic and inclusive messages when they mention matters of faith. One of the few to defy that rule has been Mississippi congressional candidate Clinton LeSueur, who departed from his prepared text, which said ''the foundation of this great nation is faith."

''The very foundation of this great nation is Christianity and the firm belief in Jesus Christ," LaSueur said instead, provoking wild applause and cheers on Monday evening. ''And I believe that before we can begin to address the many problems our nation faces today, that we must restore and maintain morality and spirituality in government. And George W. Bush is fully committed to that end."

Not all social conservatives are upset by their lack of time in the spotlight, however.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell wrote on his website said he had no problem with Republicans using social moderates to bolster support for Bush's reelection, noting that the Republican Party's platform -- if not the dais -- is firmly conservative.

''I'm sure there are a few evangelical pastors who believe the Republican Party should be reflective of a Southern Baptist church, but that would be a big mistake," Falwell wrote. ''Most religious conservatives would agree with me that, as long as the Republican leadership remains chiefly pro-family, pro-life, and pro-traditional marriage, we will continue to favor the party."

At the Democratic National Convention in July, the Kerry campaign tried to reach out to religious conservatives despite its platform's support for abortion rights and opposition to a federal amendment against gay marriage. The Democratic platform mentions God seven times, compared with twice in the Republican platform. The Democrats also use the words ''faith," ''religion," and ''religious" 19 times. Republicans use them 45 times.

''Faith has given me values and hope to live by, from Vietnam to this day, from Sunday to Sunday," Senator John F. Kerry said in his acceptance speech.

Green, a specialist on religion and politics, said he believes the GOP has decided that it can mobilize its Christian base after this week and so does not need to cater to it now at the risk of ''bad press" from firebrand speeches by leaders such as Falwell.

''The Republicans clearly want to have a very moderate message as part of the convention, and that's why they have been working very hard to limit any opportunities for dissidents and unpopular voices," Green said. ''There is a certain danger that conservative Christians and other social conservatives may become disenchanted. But I think the calculation of the party is that they have other ways to engage them."

William Murray, chairman of the Religious Freedom Convention and director of the Government is not God PAC, called social conservatives the ''foot soldiers" of the Republican Party because they are the ones who go door-to-door, put up yard signs, and drive voters to polls. He warned that this infantry must be taken care of for the Republican army to win the war.

Still, he said, he has been around long enough to realize that what's happening this week is not everything.

''It's frustrating," he said. ''But the convention may be one thing while the reality is that when it comes to our work . . . we have a tremendous amount of influence on the Hill -- a lot more than we have here -- getting our legislation passed."

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