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His to win

Campaign 2008 | Barack Obama trails in polling among evangelicals, but he hopes to take the upbeat message that made him the first black candidate for U.S. president on the road to winning pro-life converts and the White House

Issue: "Two-ring circus," Sept. 6, 2008

DENVER-One of the most unlikely characters at the Democratic National Convention might have been Abu Chowdhurj. On a hot afternoon near the heavily guarded gates of the Pepsi Center in downtown Denver, where convention-goers flocked to nightly sessions, Chowdhurj stood wedged between vendors hawking everything from T-shirts to teddy bears emblazoned with Sen. Barack Obama's image.

The middle-aged native of Bangladesh wore a plain suit with an American flag pin, and held up a white bumper sticker with bright red letters: "Rednecks for Obama."

Does Chowdhurj consider himself a redneck? "No, I'm a brown-neck," he told WORLD. But he sympathizes with the rural farmers near the small town where he owns a hotel in Missouri, and banded with a handful to take their political concerns to Denver. They're worried about things like gas prices and a faltering economy, Chowdhurj said, and they wanted to show that "rednecks like Obama too."

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Chowdhurj was unique, but he wasn't alone. During the four-day convention that drew more than 70,000 people into downtown Denver, the crammed streets teemed with protesters and peddlers of causes ranging from wonkish to weird.

Thousands of self-proclaimed anarchists and war protesters marched several miles through town hoisting signs with slogans like: "Who Would Jesus Bomb?" and "Make Out, Not War."

Wesley Flowers, a homeless-rights activist from Portland, helped corral protesters through the streets and explained his helmet and body armor covered by a bright yellow vest: "The Denver police are trigger happy, and I have a heart murmur." (Police had clashed with about 300 protesters blocking traffic earlier in the week, spraying some with pepper spray and taking a few dozen into custody.)

Flowers told WORLD he was an Afghanistan war veteran and distrusts both Obama and Sen. John McCain's foreign policy. He suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome, he said, and wants to spare others: "I can't sleep at night."

A few blocks away at the Colorado Convention Center, two animal-rights activists in pig suits carried signs reading: "Stop Global Warming: Tax Meat." Another demonstrator wore a full-body toilet suit and carried signs advocating conserving water.

The circus of daily antics drew plenty of attention, but inside the halls of the convention center a quieter act was unfolding: Democrats and Obama staffers were reaching out to a group of voters often also considered a sideshow and unlikely to support the party: evangelicals. With two months left in the race for the White House, Obama and McCain are both racing for religious conservatives, and so far McCain appears to lead. A recent Pew Forum study showed McCain leading Obama by 36 points among white evangelicals. That's about 7 points shy of President Bush's rating with the same group four years ago, but a considerable lead nonetheless.

Still, Obama's camp is determined to peel off at least some evangelical voters in an election that will likely be close. (The two candidates remain within a few points of each other in national polls.) Obama's campaign boasts a small staff devoted solely to religious issues, including Shaun Casey, a former minister in the Church of Christ and a Christian ethics professor at Wesley Theological Seminary.

When it comes to reaching evangelicals, Casey told WORLD it's been easy: "They come to me." Casey acknowledges many evangelicals are skeptical of Obama, but he says a slew of pastors, Christian colleges, and other evangelical groups are open: "My last several weeks have been a whirlwind of activity responding to evangelicals reaching out to me."

What's attracting some evangelicals is an unlikely issue: abortion. Democrats are touting a change to their platform this year that includes supporting women facing unplanned pregnancies: The new language speaks of reducing the need for abortions and pledges financial support and health care to expectant mothers in need.

Evangelical leaders like Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, and Joel Hunter of Northland Church in Orlando helped craft the new language, and Hunter recently told reporters: "Pro-life voters of either party can now support Senator Obama on the basis that more lives will be saved than if they had just taken a moral stand hoping to overturn Roe v. Wade."

At a Democrats for Life forum in a tiny meeting room in the Monaco Hotel during the convention, Heath Shuler, a pro-life Democratic congressman from North Carolina, charged Republicans with touting pro-life rhetoric but not following up with help for mothers and children. Shuler said Republicans are pro-life "from conception to birth," and Democrats are pro-life "from birth to natural death."

Shuler and other pro-life congressmen, including Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., promoted the Pregnant Women's Support Act, a bill that would provide aid and services to pregnant women, including health care and adoption referrals.

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