Like evangelicals across the country, the 5,000 members of this politically active church are being courted as a critical bloc as the candidates head into Super Tuesday next week. In several of the 10 states casting ballots Tuesday, evangelicals could constitute a majority of voters.
And for the first time in years, the white conservative Christian community does not have an obvious candidate from its own ranks — no born-again Protestant like Mike Huckabee or George W. Bush to coalesce behind in the primaries. While evangelical support for Santorum has grown in recent weeks, bolstering his standing against Mitt Romney, the community is still considered largely up for grabs.
That has brought a flurry of attention to First Redeemer, where pastor Richard Lee advises his members to vote for “those who will most represent us as believers.”
Four years ago, evangelicals made up more than 60 percent of Republican primary voters in Georgia, exit polls showed. In Tennessee and Oklahoma, two other Super Tuesday states, more than seven out of 10 primary voters were evangelicals.
Now, with polls showing that Tuesday’s contests could end with a mix of winners, evangelical support is seen as even more crucial. The candidates are openly competing for them — Romney, Gingrich and Santorum will appear Saturday on a nationally televised forum from Ohio with Huckabee. The conversation will focus on jobs, but each candidate is hoping for a nod of approval from the former Arkansas governor, whose opinions carry weight with conservative Christian voters.
None of the candidates are willing to cede the evangelical vote, and each has devised a strategy.
The game plans
The Ron Paul campaign is sending packets to megachurch leaders and televangelists that include a personal letter from the congressman, a statement outlining his opposition to abortion rights and DVDs of his speeches before conservative Christian groups, according to senior Paul adviser Doug Wead.
Gingrich, who represented Georgia in Congress for two decades, has made evangelical churches regular stops along the campaign trail. He speaks often about religious freedom and his relationship with God.
“I don’t come here as a saint,” he said at First Redeemer last month. “I come here as a citizen who has had a life that at times has fallen short of the glory of God who has had to seek God’s forgiveness and had to seek reconciliation.”
Santorum, a conservative Catholic who has drawn endorsements from some old-line evangelical leaders, makes frequent references to his faith, his support for teaching creationism in public schools and the home-schooling of his own children. But other than his appearance at First Redeemer, he has been doing little direct outreach to churches.