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Prominent evangelicals say GOP hasn’t asked them to convention

Organizers deny any intentional omissions

NEW YORK -- Some prominent evangelical Christians say they have not been invited to participate in or attend the Republican National Convention less than three weeks before the event is to begin.

Analysts said the move likely reflects a GOP desire to sideline its more polarizing supporters during a tight presidential race, but convention organizers deny they're marginalizing the religious leaders. Republican strategist Ralph Reed, onetime executive director of the Christian Coalition, said Wednesday that invitations just started going out to evangelical figures, but he would not release any names.

The Rev. Franklin Graham, who delivered the invocation at President Bush's inauguration, has had no request to attend so far, said Graham spokesman Mark DeMoss.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell, who offered a prayer at the 2000 convention, said he has not yet been asked to do so this year. He plans to go "quietly in and quietly out" of the New York event, although he insists no one in the Republican campaigns asked him to keep a low profile.

Speaking yesterday on CNN, Falwell denied any rift with Bush or the Republican National Convention Committee, saying, "I just believe George Bush is as fine a president as we've had in my lifetime. I'd equate it with Ronald Reagan. . . . I'll be there. If condemning him will help him, I'll condemn him; if applauding him will help him, I'll applaud him."

Falwell added: "I preach 25 times a week, so I don't need a place to preach, so I'll just say, I'll just be cheering the president. I believe in him. I think he's great. I hope he gets four more years."

The Rev. Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition and a onetime Republican presidential candidate, said, "I've had no request from anybody to be there." Unlike Falwell, Robertson believes the GOP is deliberately keeping him and other evangelicals away.

"In the last convention, the thought was to keep all the conservatives out of sight," said Robertson, who has attended every Republican convention since 1988, but said he won't go this year. "The general thrust will be to entice the so-called independent moderates and I am not sure that there would be much reason for a conservative to be there."

Reed said the Republicans had employed no such strategy and said conservative Christians will have a central role at the convention, which begins Aug. 30.

"There is a specific program underway to invite social conservatives and religious leaders of a very broad or diverse representations and that is even underway as we speak," Reed said.

Bush's chief political strategist, Karl Rove, has estimated that 4 million conservative Christians did not vote in 2000, and the campaign is working hard to get them to the polls this Election Day.

Analysts say that denying a prominent spot to leaders such as Robertson or Falwell likely will not hurt this effort.

John Green, a specialist in religion and politics at the University of Akron, said that after years of activism in Republican campaigns, conservative Christians are now party insiders who may not require a specific religious appeal at the convention.

"Evangelicals are likely to be strongly represented at the convention, but within the ranks of the GOP and the Bush campaign," Green said. "Key movement leaders, like Ralph Reed and Gary Bauer, may well attend, but as party leaders, not evangelical figures."

Also, many evangelicals no longer look to Robertson or Falwell as their top representatives. A survey conducted last spring for the PBS program "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly" and US News & World Report found that less than half of evangelicals have a favorable view of Falwell, while only a slight majority view Robertson favorably.

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