"Take About Five People with You and Vote. It Would Be a Sin Not To"

G.O.P. operatives are targeting scandal-weary but vital Christian conservatives - all but begging parishioners to give them one more chance even after the Foley scandal

They stayed at home in large numbers instead of voting in the 2000 election, or so Karl Rove has always maintained. They came out for President Bush in 2004 and were key to his re-election, or so they like to claim. Now, just weeks before the Nov. 7 midterm congressional elections, one of the last unknowns of a wild and potentially historic campaign season is: What will Christian conservatives do this time?

With polls suggesting an increased likelihood that Republicans may lose one or both houses of Congress, g.o.p. strategists calculate that a calamitous Category 5 election might be tamed to a merely scary Category 4 if they can somehow conjure a solid turnout of evangelical voters, the white suburbanites who fill the megachurches and can usually be counted on even in light-turnout elections like midterms. Party operatives plan to devote the election's closing weeks to courting Christians more intensely than any other single stripe of the electorate, all but begging the parishioners to give them one more chance even after the Foley scandal.

Leaders of Christian-conservative lobbying organizations are going along with the G.O.P. push, despite their misgivings about Mark Foley, the now resigned Republican Florida Congressman caught sending lewd e-mails to teenage pages, and the lackadaisical response by the House leadership. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, last week told listeners of his radio program, carried on 1,000 stations in the U.S., "Yes, what Mark Foley did was wrong, but it is still important to go to the polls and let our voices be heard ... Take about five people with you and vote. It would be a sin not to." The Family Research Council has been e-mailing "No Time to Be Complacent" bulletins and held a Liberty Sunday turnout rally at the base of Boston's Beacon Hill that was televised to hundreds of church-fellowship halls, evening services and small-group meetings. These leaders have calculated that remaining aloof would just diminish their power. "You only gain clout by activity," says Michael Farris, chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association. His group plans to send hundreds of teenagers who are home schooled to 10 states in the election's closing week to make phone calls and knock on doors on behalf of conservative candidates.

Like many of his supporters, though, Farris has over time become a more reluctant warrior for the g.o.p. Polls of white evangelical Protestants show that their support for the Republican Party grew substantially from 1999 to 2004, then began a steady decline. An October poll by the Pew Research Center found that just 42% of Evangelicals thought that "governs in an honest and ethical way" described the Republican Party better than the Democratic Party. Also, 31% said they intended to vote for a Democrat, up from the 22% who voted for John Kerry in 2004.

The souring of churchgoers' feelings toward the party is largely the result of frustrated expectations. Before the 2004 election, Bush and other Republican candidates promised to work for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, then largely ignored the issue once elected. "There's little to show for all the effort," says Farris. Also, many conservative leaders argue that the Foley embarrassment has shown that the party has become too permissive. "The big tent has become a three-ring circus," says Tony Perkins, the president of the influential Family Research Council. The Administration got a fresh blast of animus from such groups last week after remarks by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the swearing-in ceremony for the nation's global aids coordinator. She referred to the parents of his male partner as his "in-laws," which the Administration says was a mistake based on notes she had been handed and was not any sort of statement of policy. Meanwhile, David Kuo, who has just published an expose of his stint as deputy director of Bush's faith-based office, used a spate of television appearances to argue that the White House had politically exploited the devout.

Christian conservatives who are sticking by the G.O.P. point out that there have been victories, most notably the confirmation of two conservatives to the Supreme Court. And the President has restricted federal funding for stem-cell research. But recognizing that their followers are out of sorts, leaders like Dobson have expanded their pitch beyond the traditional social issues like abortion and are making the fear of terrorism—Focus on the Family calls it the issue of "national sovereignty"—a central argument for turning out for Republicans. At three Stand for the Family rallies, which drew smaller crowds than similar ones in 2004, Dobson said "World War III," a battle against violent Muslims, "has started, and no one seems to know it."

Republican campaign operatives, meanwhile, are working directly to stoke turnout of these cranky but vital religious voters. Senator Jim Talent of Missouri, battling in one of the nation's closest races, appointed a Conservative Coalition director who organizes volunteers specializing in reaching traditionalists with messages about everything from taxes to marriage. In Tennessee, Republican Senate candidate Bob Corker has organized ministers to reach out to their churches' members on his behalf. For those campaigns, such efforts could be the difference between winning and losing.

But that could be true for Christian conservatives as well. Evangelical leaders often complain that Republican officials have not given them sufficient credit for their muscle in the past three elections. If Nov. 7 turns into a g.o.p. wipeout, those same officials can be counted on to blame Christian voters above others.

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