The Rev. Ken Hutcherson's game plan is simple. The former professional football player turned megachurch pastor intends to pack a stadium-size crowd of evangelical Christians onto the Mall today to decry same-sex marriage and "let everyone know God is in control" of the Nov. 2 elections.
Hutcherson's "Mayday for Marriage" rally is one of dozens of loosely coordinated or independent efforts by evangelical ministers, Christian lobbying groups and the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign to mobilize religious conservatives in the final weeks of the 2004 presidential race.
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In 2000, the last-minute revelation that George W. Bush had once been arrested for drunken driving may have caused conservative Christians to waver on Election Day. Karl Rove, the president's senior political adviser, has said that 4 million fewer evangelicals than expected turned out at the polls, something the president's backers are determined to keep from happening again.
White evangelical Protestants, who are leaning 4 to 1 toward Bush in opinion polls, make up 20 to 25 percent of the electorate, or about 50 million potential voters. But like other Americans, nearly half do not vote.
"If we can get another 10 percent of all believers to get out there and vote, we can elect anyone we want," said Hutcherson, who played for Dallas, San Diego and Seattle in the NFL during the 1970s and now leads the multiracial Antioch Bible Church near Seattle.
Among the individuals and groups working to register and turn out evangelical voters this year are many that have not been involved in presidential politics before.
Impressed by the "Rock the Vote" effort to reach the MTV generation, an Alabama gastroenterologist, R. Randolph Brinson, spent $300,000 of his own money in May to start "Redeem the Vote." He said it is a nonpartisan effort, as required by Internal Revenue Service rules for charitable organizations. The group has enlisted 35 Christian rock performers to urge religious youths to go to the polls and is promoted by the same publicity team that hawked director Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."
Larger groups have also entered the fray. The Southern Baptist Convention, which had never before undertaken a national voter registration drive, has outfitted an 18-wheel tractor-trailer as a mobile registration center. It also set up a Web site, iVoteValues.com, and helped the Colorado-based Focus on the Family create a similar site, iVoteValues.org.
Both are Internet-based versions of an older mobilization tool, the "voter guides" distributed for more than a decade by the Washington-based Christian Coalition of America. Though such guides are supposed to be neutral, factual comparisons of the candidates' positions on a broad range of issues, the IRS and the Christian Coalition have waged two lawsuits over alleged bias in past elections.
The Christian Coalition's guide to this year's presidential race came out yesterday. As in the past, it does not overtly endorse a candidate. But Democratic activists charged that it clearly tilts toward Bush in its selection and wording of issues. It says, for example, that Bush opposes "unrestricted abortion on demand," "adoption of children by homosexuals" and "placing U.S. troops under U.N. control." It shows the Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry, as either supporting or providing "no response" on those issues.
Roberta Combs, the Christian Coalition's president, denied any partisan intent. "We have been working closely with the IRS, and I don't think there's any problem at all," she said. "The facts are the facts."
Combs added that she plans to mail 30 million copies of the guide -- less than half the 70 million that the coalition distributed in 2000 -- partly because it will also be available on the Internet, and partly because so many other groups have joined this year's effort to register and turn out evangelical voters. "I think it's wonderful. The more, the merrier," she said.
The Christian groups do not know for sure how many voters they have registered, because they have no way of telling whether voters return registration forms. Redeem the Vote said it has distributed 30,000 registration forms at concerts and 40,000 over the Internet. Focus on the Family said 30,000 forms have been downloaded from its Web site, and it has sent registration kits to more than 8,000 churches.
The groups also cannot be sure that they are registering only Bush supporters. Because of IRS rules, "we can't say we want to register only Republicans. We can say we want to register people who are conservative like us," said John D. Wilson, manager of Focus on the Family's effort.
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the effort to mobilize evangelical voters in 2004 is "unparalleled in its energy, its sophistication and its stealth nature."
Lynn, who has also criticized some liberal churches for effectively endorsing Kerry, said past efforts to mobilize evangelicals were dominated by a few big groups such as the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition. This time, he said, there are many smaller groups and individual pastors -- such as Hutcherson and the Rev. John Gimenez of Virginia Beach, who will lead another Christian rally on the Mall on Oct. 22.
"The religious right has become more diffuse, but that doesn't mean they have less clout," he said. "It just means they can fly under the radar."
But Ralph E. Reed, the Bush-Cheney campaign's Southeast regional coordinator and a veteran of seven presidential campaigns, said that "what's most different about 2004 is that for the first time, the effort to get out the socially conservative faith community has been fully integrated into the presidential campaign."
Reed said that does not mean the campaign coordinates all the external Christian groups or pastors engaged in registration and get-out-the-vote efforts. Rather, it means the campaign has a large internal apparatus, including experienced strategists and thousands of volunteers, devoted to the same goal.
"What's important here is you've witnessed an evolution of the conservative faith vote from a marginal position to a mainstream position within the Republican Party," he said. "In the past, we left a pretty good chunk of votes to other people to turn out. We're not doing that anymore."