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Candidates are targeting evangelical base in W.Va.

BECKLEY, W.Va. -- Bush campaign volunteers are calling their fellow churchgoers. The Christian Coalition's voting guides will ship out shortly. And pastors across West Virginia are making the case -- sometimes explicitly, sometimes less so -- that President Bush is a better choice on spiritual grounds than Democrat John F. Kerry.

Yet whether devout Christians will turn out en masse for Bush remains uncertain. The Republicans' network of pastors and religious voters is proving something less than rock-solid in a state and a region hit hard by manufacturing job losses, and with many sons and daughters serving in a war that has grown unpopular. In the campaign's final month, the Kerry campaign is beginning to escalate its fight for religious voters in West Virginia.

"We've been misled by our president," said Pastor David Allen of the Welcome Baptist Church in Beckley, who is urging parishioners to support Kerry. "We have become the aggressor instead of the peacemaker in Iraq. God is not Republican or Democratic -- he's for what's right."

Stung by exit polls suggesting that as many as 4 million evangelical Christians stayed at home on Election Day in 2000, the Bush campaign has been hard at work for more than a year to turn out voters from that religious background. Now, the Bush campaign considers evangelical Christians to be a potent force that could push the president over the top in such closely contested states as West Virginia, Iowa, and Ohio.

In West Virginia, Republicans have organized through churches just as Democrats have long organized through labor unions, with activist training sessions, coordinated letter-to-the-editor campaigns, and drives to register voters.

The efforts will be capped by a final push in the campaign's last 72 hours, employing a strategy used to defeat a Democratic governor and senator in Georgia two years ago. The strategy was organized by Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition who is serving as a top Bush adviser this year.

"If we can get the word out on where the president stands and where Senator Kerry stands, West Virginians will support the president," said Steve Harrison, a Republican state senator from Charleston who is chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign's social conservative coalition in West Virginia. "The clear differences have social conservatives very aware of the stakes."

Bush, a devout Christian who has often talked openly of his faith, is expected to win the votes of the majority of evangelical Christian voters. His stump speech is marbled with references designed to reach out to such voters; he speaks of the "culture of life," calls marriage and family "the foundations of our society," and draws sustained applause by criticizing judges who "legislate from the bench."

Republicans are trying to shore up Bush's support among evangelical voters by keeping in play hot-button such issues as abortion, gay marriage, and judicial appointments. Last month, the Republican Party sent a mailing to West Virginia voters that urged recipients to "vote Republican to protect our families." It defined the "liberal agenda" by showing a Bible with the word "banned" on it and a man placing a ring on the hand of another man with the with the word "allowed."

But Democrats are not ready to concede West Virginia's churchgoers to the GOP. Bumper stickers are popping up in Charleston, the capital, and elsewhere in the state: "Christian and a Democrat," they read, with the Christian fish symbol next to a Democratic donkey.

Last week, a group called Clergy and Lay People in Support of John Kerry announced its start in West Virginia, saying a president who engages in preemptive war is not living by the doctrine of Christ. The state's senior political figure, US Senator Robert C. Byrd, hammered home that point on Monday at a rally in Beckley, where he blasted Bush as a hypocrite who is trying to exploit religion for political gain.

Kathy Roeder, a Kerry campaign spokeswoman, conceded that voters who have cast ballots strictly on social issues such as abortion are probably lost to Democrats. But with uncertain economy and continuing violence in Iraq, many voters will be turned off by the Bush campaign's attempts to use social issues as a wedge in the campaign, she said.

"We're connecting on faith issues," Roeder said. "You need to look at George Bush's deeds, not just his rhetoric. Look at what he has actually done. His actions and deeds haven't been reflected."

Four years ago, Bush carried West Virginia and won its five electoral votes by nearly 41,000 votes, or 6.3 percentage points. The results were among the biggest surprises of the race, given the 2-to-1 registration advantage Democrats hold over Republicans and the fact that Bill Clinton carried the state by a double-digit margin in 1992 and 1996.

Still, the state has grown more Republican in recent years, with all signs pointing to social issues as the driving force.

West Virginia's population has a strong evangelical element. By some estimates, 40 percent of the state's residents consider themselves to be evangelical Protestants, compared with the national average of about 25 percent.

By comparison, white evangelical or born-again Protestants represent 36 percent of all registered voters in Missouri, 30 percent in Iowa, 31 percent in Virginia, and 49 percent in Arkansas, according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center's Election Survey. The national figure was pegged at 26 percent. The survey, published in July, also found that 72 percent of such voters said they approved of the way Bush was handling his presidency, although respondents were about evenly divided on whether the country was on the right track. The survey found such voters far more likely to support Bush than Kerry, but only 30 percent said they were paying close attention to the race at the time.

The Rev. J. Allen Fine, director of the Christian Coalition's West Virginia chapter, said the choice will be clear to West Virginia residents after they pick up voting guides printed by the Christian Coalition. An initial order of 2,000 such guides will be placed in churches across the state, and lay activists are being recruited to contact their fellow church members about the importance of voting, supplementing the Bush campaign's efforts.

Although churches and the Christian Coalition cannot make formal political endorsements because of IRS limitations, the coalition will make clear which candidate is preferred, Fine said.

"Christians have a responsibility to cast their vote on the side of right," said Fine, who works as a religious broadcaster. "We can put enough adjectives and enough statements in there so that they'll get the message. The two candidates running for president, it's pretty clear what they stand for."

But in West Virginia, religion is not the domain of only one political party. Gary Abernathy, executive director of the West Virginia Republican Party, said social issues are rarely crucial in in-state races, since the Democratic and Republican candidates often share the same views. He noted that Democrats from outside the state, such as Al Gore four years ago and Kerry this year, have a tough time relating to West Virginia voters.

Even so, Democrats have served notice that they will not let religious campaigning stand without an answer. To make a case against Bush Monday, Byrd sang "Amazing Grace" and quoted Scriptures. "The Bible, in the Gospel of Matthew, teaches, 'By their fruits ye shall know them,' " Byrd said, according to The Register-Herald of Beckley. "But what fruits do we see around us? We see division and discord. We see the hungry and the homeless. We see a nation divided by the very leaders who promised to unite us.

"We ought to rise up and vote, vote for John Kerry. Hallelujah, thank God."

At the Welcome Baptist Church in Beckley, Pastor Allen has a response for anyone who says Bush would make a better president because of Christian values: "I can't hear what you're saying, because I see what you're doing."

While he is careful not to run afoul of IRS restrictions on not-for-profit organizations, he is not shy about sharing his personal beliefs with his congregation. "I told them, make up your own mind, but the Bible says, 'Follow me as I follow Christ, ' " he said.

Rick Klein can be reached at rklein@globe.com.

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