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The Religious Right, Out of the Spotlight

By Evelyn Nieves
Friday, September 3, 2004; Page A23

NEW YORK, Sept. 2

Outside the New Yorker Hotel, more than the usual Midtown madness claimed the streets.

Clutches of police officers directed traffic, camera crews plowed through the morning crush of nine-to-fivers, and protesters gathering for their first rallies of the day. A clean-cut young man holding a "Save Our Soldiers, Re-Defeat Bush" sign argued with a bearded man in Muslim robes over a favored spot on the southwest corner of Eighth Avenue.

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"I was here first!" the young man said. "No, you weren't!" the other shot back.

But above all that, in a third-floor meeting room of the New Yorker, there was peace, blissful peace.

The 9 a.m. prayer service had started.

The daily sessions, open to all participants of the Republican National Convention, being held across the street at Madison Square Garden, drew a dozen people Thursday morning.

Janet Parshall, a conservative radio host of a syndicated three-hour daily talk show, led the group. She led prayers for President Bush to win and prayers for those who mock the religious right. When she asked those gathered if they had any special prayers, one man asked for a prayer for "an angry protester" who had confronted him the day before, and another asked for a prayer that he, as an elected politician, be given the grace to separate human laws from the laws of the Lord.

It was all over in an hour. But the prayer session -- sponsored by the National Federation of Republican Assemblies, a conservative group that bills itself as "the Republican wing of the Republican Party" -- was just one example of the way religious conservatives who are a key part of Bush's base have been finding a way to keep the faith in Manhattan this week.

Sure, their voices have been muted during prime-time speeches aimed at moderate undecided voters watching the GOP show on television. And for a Republican Party trying to win a tight election, it made perfect sense: A recent Zogby poll found that 60 percent of undecided voters believe that a president should keep religious values separate from politics; only 29 percent wanted their president to emphasize religious values.

But the number of undecided voters is much smaller than it has been in several election cycles -- just 3 percent of likely voters, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. So organizers at this convention have been finding ways to appeal to members of the Christian conservative base who will be dispatched to knock on doors, register voters and get out the vote this November.

Throughout the convention schedule, all week, God was in the details.

The Republicans have held prayer services and more prayer services. Former representative J.C. Watts (Okla.) held a prayer breakfast for 700 people at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, with White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. as the featured speaker. The Republican National Committee staged a "Catholic outreach event" at the Westin Times Square hotel featuring RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie and columnist Peggy Noonan. Antiabortion activists held a luncheon featuring Phyllis Schlafly and others on the right, including Ann Coulter.

Ralph Reed, a Bush campaign strategist and former executive director of the Christian Coalition, told The Washington Post in an interview Thursday that prime-time speakers discussed faith in their own way. "I thought Senator Miller addressed it last night," he said of the keynote address by Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.), which invoked God several times. "And I thought Laura Bush certainly touched on it thematically."

But the most prominent occasion for religious discussion was an invitation-only rally for the conservative faithful Tuesday afternoon. The rally was organized by the Bush-Cheney campaign, which is mindful that the 4 million evangelical Christians who sat out the election in 2000 could put the president in the win column if they vote this time around.

The "Family, Faith and Freedom Rally," at the Waldorf-Astoria, invited more than 1,000 social conservatives to discuss forging a conservative agenda in the next four years, including ways to ban same-sex marriage and curb abortion. It reminded the faithful in an invitation that Bush is "a conservative leader who shares our values" and exhorted participants to raise the rafters to get out the vote.

And if all that was not enough -- to be sure, some conservatives would probably say it was not -- convention organizers screened five showings this week of a new film on Bush: "George W. Bush: Faith in the White House." The film, which is billed as a documentary, will be sold in Kmart stores and similar outlets beginning Oct. 6, the same day that Michael Moore's anti-Bush film, "Fahrenheit 9/11," is scheduled to be sold in stores.

At the fifth showing of the film during the convention Thursday afternoon at the New Yorker, David Balsiger, the director, could not contain his excitement over the buzz the film has generated among Republicans here. Delegates had bought about 600 DVDs of the film, he said, and at least 300 delegates had inquired about sending the film to every church in their state.

"This film proves that Bush walks the talk of his faith," Balsiger said, as popcorn popped behind him. "You look at the busiest man in the world and he finds time to do it, so it's very inspirational for the average Christian."

Parshall, the radio talk show host, narrates "Faith in the White House."

After the morning prayer service, she said she has not minded that prominent Christians have not gotten their share of televised speeches this week.

Sen. John F. Kerry's campaign has contended that by putting moderates in the spotlight, the Bush campaign is, essentially, hiding its true, hard-right self. But Parshall said that speakers such as Miller mentioned religion as a matter of fact. "It just comes out."

As for the moderate majority on view, "I know that politics is the art of showmanship," she said, "and that moderates were there to appeal to undecided voters. I've gotten calls on my show this week already. They say, 'I'm an independent. I've already decided. I'm going for Bush.' For us, it's a win-win."


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