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Up for grabs

Campaign 2008 | Obama makes a concerted bid for the young evangelical vote, but the numbers suggest they are still leaning right

Issue: "Home again," July 12, 2008

Diana Smith, a self-described moderate and committed Presbyterian, says she registered Democrat because she read that Republicans send more junk mail: "I'm not like a clear-cut Democrat or a clear-cut Republican. But in this world they make you pick a party."

Smith, 27, is part of a group observers say is a key swing voting bloc-young evangelicals. She is disillusioned with the war and doesn't think Jesus would work Himself into a frenzy over gay marriage. She calls herself pro-life. She respects McCain but is skeptical about his ability to cleanse America's tarnished reputation. An ex-Clinton supporter, she is "slowly going for Obama."

And Obama clearly wants her vote. In June, he met with 30 prominent religious leaders. His campaign mobilized the Joshua Generation Project (to the disgruntlement of the Home School Legal Defense Association, which claims he stole the name) to reach young evangelicals and Catholics. He just announced an overhaul and funding increase for faith-based organizations. His campaign plans to host Christian rock concerts and faith-based meetings in dorms.

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Meanwhile, John McCain just met with venerable evangelical leaders Billy and Franklin Graham, but he has yet to make any decided moves toward young evangelicals. John Green, senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, said it may come down to how much effort each campaign expends: "There is a degree of political flux among young evangelicals and that makes them more open to voting Democratic, but it by no means guarantees that they will. So what we have among young evangelicals is a group of voters that are up for grabs."

Green said young evangelicals are "tired of the confrontational politics we've had over the last couple of decades" and want "a broader agenda and a much more inclusive approach." According to the Pew Forum's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, 35 percent of young white evangelicals said society should accept homosexuality, compared to 22 percent of older evangelicals. While a commitment to poverty-fighting is nothing new for Christians, 58 percent of young white evangelicals would choose "bigger government providing more services" over "smaller government providing fewer services." Among older evangelicals, 56 percent would choose smaller government instead.

But while young white evangelicals are less conservative than their parents, they are still more conservative than their peers. According to Pew Forum research, 44 percent identify themselves as conservatives and 60 percent support the Iraq War. Their GOP affiliation declined dramatically after 2005, but they are still twice as likely as their peers to identify themselves as Republicans. And they are more pro-life than older evangelicals.

A yet-unanswered question: Where do their political priorities lie? Do they rank abortion before the environment and government programs? Daniel Cox, a Pew Forum research associate, said,"We just don't know what it is they most care about."

Smith said her top priorities are the environment, poverty, and health care. They're the issues that affect her most-more than abortion or gay marriage-and she thinks they're the issues Jesus prioritized, too: "I know that Jesus said visit the sick, feed the hungry," she said. "I feel like I'm not going against my faith by putting those issues at the forefront."

"The whole gay thing?" she says. "Jesus never mentioned homosexuals at all."

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