At a prayer breakfast in Philadelphia last month, Republican presidential contender Elizabeth Dole confessed that her life was "threatened with spiritual starvation" until she humbled herself before God. In April, George W. Bush told churchgoers in Houston that "something was missing" in his life until a chance meeting with a Christian prophet helped him "recommit my life to Jesus Christ."

It used to be that when moderate Republicans such as Dole and Bush appeared before a group of Christian evangelicals, they could expect to be grilled about their stands on abortion, gay rights and other sensitive social issues. Increasingly, though, these encounters involve a more intimate dialogue, in which the politicians tell personal stories of their salvation as a proxy for committing to specific positions on the issues.

Most of the top-tier Republican presidential candidates -- including Bush and Dole -- already have told Christian leaders they will not push for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion but instead will concentrate on "changing hearts," as Bush put it.

Yet this retreat does not signify a snubbing of the religious right; the candidates simply have found a different way to reach out to evangelicals, by adopting the familiar rhythms of religious confession, telling narratives of their own salvation in Christ -- substituting, in essence, an evangelical style for a substantive stand on the issues.

Bush and Dole, in particular, have perfected what in evangelical circles is known as a testimony -- a quick biographical sketch of their faith, taking them from the drudgery of perfunctory churchgoing down into the valley of despair, then back up again to a glorious rebirth in Christ.

These confessional narratives seem to be resonating with evangelicals. After the Clinton scandals, Christian right leaders say they are more wary of a candidate with a shifty character than one who may be shaky on certain issues.

"We feel equally intensely about abortion, but there is a growing number of us who feel the issue we care about most is depth of character and commitment to Christian faith," said Mark Holbrook, a board member of the Christian Management Association who has invited Dole and others to speak to the network of 1,600 evangelical churches. "If you think about it, what's more important, a person's position on abortion or a person's personal faith in the Lord? That's the foundation. Everything starts there."

Even candidates who are not reaching out to the religious right are projecting a diffuse spirituality. In April, Vice President Gore gave a speech praising faith-based organizations in explicitly Christian inspirational language: "Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is within us," he explained. He did not share his own testimony but told the personal stories of others -- a depressed woman and a drug addict transformed through the power of faith.

Christian testimonies are as old as the Apostle Paul, but only in the last 30 years or so have they taken the form of soul-baring public confessions. In the past, professions of faith by public figures such as Woodrow Wilson were more likely to be philosophical orations on what they believed than stories of how they came to believe it. But in the 1960s, in response to shifts in theology and culture, evangelicals began replacing somber declarations of faith with intimate confessions of personal salvation. A decade later, Jimmy Carter introduced this idiom to presidential politics.

"In the past, someone could say, `thus sayeth the Lord' and be sure of it," explained Haddon Robinson, a professor at Gordon Conwell Seminary who is recognized as one of the country's most effective preachers. "Now, there is less certainty among many people about the basic message of their Christian faith. And when a society has lost track of absolute truth, it tends to focus on personal experience."

A convincing testimony usually contains a few common elements: It begins with a portrait of the old sinning self, withered and all too human. It ends with a joyous rebirth, a new self flushed with love for God and an inner peace. Effecting the transformation is some well-timed prophet, a pastor or friend, bearing the gift of humility.

The form plays down the importance of argument in favor of depth of emotion and telling a good yarn. "Some folks kind of regret they grew up in a good life," said Robinson. "It's much more dramatic to say I was a drunk and a gambler and a womanizer until I found Christ. Growing up in a good home doesn't quite have that zing."

In the absence of an obvious, nameable vice, most people describe a feeling of emptiness, a "spiritual starvation," as Dole said. In that sense her testimony is typical.

Even before her presidential campaign, Dole had been sharing her testimony in Christian circles, either privately or in groups. As in most such stories, her old self carries most of her personal weaknesses.

Once, her career was "of paramount importance," Dole told the 1,300 people at the prayer breakfast in Philadelphia last week. She was trying to "control everything, surmount every difficulty, foresee every problem," she said. "I had God neatly compartmentalized, crammed into a crowded file drawer of my life, somewhere between `gardening' and `government.' "

But one day, she said, about a decade ago, she came across a "tremendously sensitive, caring pastor." He inspired her to join a prayer group and a Bible study with Senate wives. "It was time to submit my resignation as master of my own little universe -- and God accepted my resignation," she told her audience. She learned, she explained, that "dependence is a good thing," that "when I'm weak, I'm strong."

Dole is hardly an obvious magnet for evangelicals' support. After all, Southern Baptists, the largest denomination among them, passed a resolution at their annual convention last year that women should submit to their husbands. And in April, Dole shared a letter with prominent evangelical leaders saying that although she considered herself pro-life, she thought that focusing on a constitutional amendment to ban abortion -- long a goal of the religious right -- was "irrelevant" and a low priority, and that she would respect people with other views.

Yet many evangelicals feel comfortable supporting her, in large part because her professions of faith feel familiar.

"The word is out there. We know she's a Christian and she's been very vocal about her faith," said Michael Glenn, vice president of the National Religious Broadcasters, who invited Dole to address the group last year. "Despite her positions, none of us plan to distance ourselves from her."

Because of his reputation for partying when he was younger, Bush comes still closer to the ideal model for confessional testimony: He paints a convincing portrait of an old sinning self without delving into vivid detail, lest a teenager get the idea you can try anything and still change.

"I grew up in the church, but I didn't always walk the walk," Bush told 10,000 parishioners at the Second Baptist Church in Houston the night before he announced his presidential exploratory committee. He did not itemize his mistakes, as he has said he would never do, but observed, "There came a point in my life when I felt something was missing."

In other forums, Bush has traced his transformation back to two key moments. In the summer of 1985, he ran into the Rev. Billy Graham while visiting his father in Kennebunkport, Maine. Graham asked Bush if he was right with God, and Bush said he wasn't sure, and proceeded to ask Graham a lot of skeptical questions. With his answers, Bush said, Graham "planted the mustard seed."

A year later, after a celebration for his 40th birthday, Bush woke up with a hangover. Not too bad a hangover, but bad enough to send him to church seeking salvation. Since that day, he has not taken another drink, Bush said.

He joined Bible studies and started attending ice cream socials with his family. Friends began to notice a changed man. "I don't think I've ever seen anyone make the break more clearly," said the Rev. James Robison, a Fort Worth preacher who has known the Bush family for years.

Over the next decade, Bush became a regular in evangelical circles in Texas and soaked up the traditions. "He just called 30 seconds ago," said Robison, "and he wanted someone to pray with him. He was not interested in talking politics. He just wanted to talk to someone who was spiritually sensitive."

Robison has organized meetings for Bush with prominent Texas preachers: Usually a group of about a dozen from different denominations, black and white, meet in a church or conference room. In one session, a young preacher, David Walker, asked the governor if he could put his hand on his shoulder. The governor said he'd be honored, and the whole group gathered around him. "He was so moved, he was like a child," recalled Robison. "He had tears in his eyes."

Evangelicals contrast Bush's ease in such emotional settings with his father's dry style. The father is an Episcopalian raised in the East, whereas the son is a Methodist from Texas. "He has an extraordinary comfort level discussing personal religious convictions," said Richard Land, a prominent leader in the Southern Baptist Convention. Land is most impressed that around Christian leaders, Bush will give his testimony spontaneously, unsolicited. "All of us can identify with it," Land said. "It sounds like how we talk about personal experience; it sounds real and comfortable."

Land says he believes that Bush is pro-life "from the tip of his head to his toenail." And he accepts Bush's idea that "you can't change the law, you have to change the hearts and minds of the country."

These details, though, are secondary to Bush's moving testimony, a story that makes him, in a sense, pre-forgiven. Whatever may come out about Bush's past life, he has already repented. Evangelicals have heard all they need to know, Land said: "Anyone waiting around for defections, they are just not going to happen."