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The Interest Groups

By Matthew Vita and Susan Schmidt,
in The Washington Post,
Thursday 2 November 2000; Page A20

For Christian conservatives, the big story of the 2000 election is that they are not the story.

Ever since its rise two decades ago, the religious right has been a lightning rod for moderates and independents concerned about its positions on abortion, school prayer, gay rights and other social issues.

This year, however, Christian conservative groups have made a deliberate decision to stay out of the limelight, even as they try to step up their grass-roots efforts to increase voter turnout among supporters, according to analysts who follow the movement.

"The Christian right tactically is keeping its head down," said James Guth, who teaches political science at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. "They have come to realize that, after 20 years, most of the people they are trying to mobilize are pretty squarely in the Republican camp and that the thing that works best are quiet efforts to get these folks out to vote."

The decision follows a difficult year for the religious right and its main organization, the Christian Coalition, which has experienced a leadership upheaval and financial troubles that weakened its organizational clout.

But religious conservative groups united early this year during the Republican primaries behind Texas Gov. George W. Bush's presidential candidacy, eliminating much of the infighting among them--and between Christian conservatives and the rest of the party--that has characterized past presidential elections. This occurred even though Bush's "compassionate conservatism" is more moderate than many religious conservatives would like, reflecting a new spirit of pragmatism within the religious right, according to analysts.

It also underscores the high stakes of this election. With the White House within reach and the prospect that the next president will select several Supreme Court justices and tip the balance on abortion, Christian conservatives are focused on helping Bush win, even if it means muting their voice in the process.

"They have pulled out all the stops to elect George Bush. This is as major a campaign as they have had," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which tracks the Christian Coalition's efforts to mobilize supporters in churches.

According to Roberta Combs, executive director of the Christian Coalition, the group will distribute more than 70 million voter guides in churches this weekend. It also has made 1 million calls to people urging them to vote and has sent get-out-the-vote postcards in such battleground states as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Missouri, she said. "This is the biggest get-out-the-vote effort that the Christian Coalition has ever done," Combs said. "Our phones are ringing off the hook."

In California, the coalition will distribute 4 million voter guides. That comes on the heels of a letter in September from entertainer Pat Boone to 20,000 churches urging pastors to distribute voter registration forms, according to Miriam Archer, the coalition's director of operations in the state.

The coalition will pass out 3 million voter guides in Florida, 1 million of them in Spanish for the first time, said Terry Kemple, the organization's state director. It also will distribute 3 million guides to more than 6,000 churches in Ohio, according to Steve Hartkop, the coalition's Ohio state director.

"I think this year's effort is larger than any effort the coalition has ever been involved with," said Hartkop, whose wife, Chris, started the first Christian Coalition chapter in Ohio in 1990.

John Green, who follows the religious right at the University of Akron, said that although the coalition's claims may be inflated, the volume of organizational activity by Christian groups as a whole this year "looks like it will be about equal to 1996."

But Green said the closeness of the presidential race means such groups may have a greater impact. "Even if they distributed only 35 million voter guides, it would make a big difference," he said.

Green said many presidential battleground states, among them Florida, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and Michigan, have sizable Christian evangelical or conservative Protestant populations that could determine the outcome. He said Arkansas, Tennessee and West Virginia--all of which President Clinton carried in 1992 and 1996--are more competitive this year because "Christian conservatives are more active."

The state Republican Party in Michigan believes it can best get its message to some segments of the public through such groups. The party has even given money to one of them, Citizens for Traditional Values, which is running ads on Christian radio and putting out half a million voter guides.

"We are building a bigger and stronger coalition for our party," said Sage Eastman, spokesman for the Michigan state Republican committee. The funds given to Citizens for Traditional Values--$34,200 in the most recent reporting period, almost all of the group's income--come from "soft money" that the party cannot use for direct candidate advocacy.

"We can't do certain things with that soft money; we can't run specific candidate ads," said Eastman. Citizens for Traditional Values' political action committee is running about $20,000 worth of radio ads statewide supporting three conservative Republican state judicial candidates, though people who hear the ads or get voter guides have no way of knowing that the money behind the group is coming from the state GOP.

James Muffett, president of the values group, said his organization backs state and local candidates from both political parties, depending on their views on abortion and other issues. "Generally," he acknowledged, "what we're doing is going to benefit Republicans."

copyright 2000 The Washington Post

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