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."
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.
Despite the new language, the party's revised platform retains its ardent support for legalized abortion, and even strengthens that stance. It declares that the party "strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade" and drops the former language that says: "Abortion should be safe, legal, and rare."
Obama adviser Casey rejects the notion that the new platform is more pro-abortion. "That's a Republican talking point," he told WORLD. But Michael Yaki, a Democratic platform director, told The Wall Street Journal: "We put a woman's right to choose in a lockbox, and strengthened the language significantly." Yaki added that "either side could put their own moral gloss on the language."
Inside the convention, pro-abortion supporters applauded efforts to help pregnant women but vigorously defended legalized abortion, making clear that any softening on abortion was limited.
Susan Brooks, a Chicago Theological Seminary professor, looked intense as she stood in front of a row of dark blue signs reading "Pro-family, Pro-Obama." Brooks had been tapped to advocate a pro-abortion position at a panel discussion about faith and politics led by left-leaning evangelical Jim Wallis, and she told the group: "I've been a pastor for 35 years, and I'm in favor of choice."
Her voice quickly sharpened: "What kind of choice is it when a woman has to choose between terminating a pregnancy or being poor?" she asked. "What kind of choice is it if you don't have prenatal care?"
As applause and "amens" rose from the audience, so did two men a few rows from the front. "Is a baby a choice?" shouted one. "Isn't abortion murder?" asked the second man. After a convention staffer with a nervous smile escorted the men from the room, Brooks declared: "This is an example of not finding common ground."
(It was also an example of other confrontations that marked each day of the convention: Pro-life activist Randall Terry and other activists held large banners plastered with graphic pictures of unborn children and the slogan: "A vote for Obama is a vote for dead children." They screamed with bullhorns at angry passersby and continued shouting even when one man offered to listen if they would only talk.)
Back in the hall, not all pro-abortion supporters were pleased with the party's new language. Marjorie Signer of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice bristled when she heard talk about reducing the number of abortions. Democrats should instead exclusively talk about reducing "the need" for abortion, she said.
It's a distinction she thinks is critical to retaining legalized abortion. After all, she pointed out, "You could reduce the number of abortions right now by closing down the clinics and forcing women to have children they don't want."
Wallis told WORLD that evangelicals should work with Democrats: "We've got to find a way to reduce abortions while the legal debate goes on and on." He also charged Republicans with doing too little: "If I'm an unborn child and I want the support of the far right, I better stay unborn as long as possible. Because once I'm born, I'm off the screen."
A day later, about 10 miles southeast of the convention center, Martha Vaughan sat in a cozy room with a Hispanic client at the Colorado Pregnancy Care Center. The care center is one of eight similar ministries to women with crisis pregnancies in the greater Denver area.
The Spanish-speaking client is married with a 1-year-old daughter and comes to the care center for assistance with clothing and other resources. Like other clients, she earns "mommy money" in the "Earn While You Learn" program to purchase items like baby clothes, blankets, and diapers from the center's Pitter Patter Shop of donated and new items.
Vaughan, a bilingual staff member, asks the client about her family and learns that her husband recently lost his construction job. Vaughan gives her information on local food banks and asks about other needs. She also encourages her to take English classes and offers a list of free programs.
The center tailors educational classes to client's needs, including nutrition, infant care, and single motherhood, as well as Bible studies and other Christian-based counsel.
After watching a short video, Vaughan prays with her client and accompanies the young mother to browse the small shop. The client picks out a pack of diapers, a few toys, a denim jumper, and a pink dress with tiny roses.
Director Wendy Stone says the center serves about 60-65 clients a month and talks with young women about abortion alternatives and the resources available during and after pregnancy: "Our position is that abortion is never a good option, no matter what the circumstances."
Obama adviser Casey acknowledges that evangelical groups offer "a whole set of vibrant ministries" to pregnant women. But he contends the government should be more involved, and that Republicans haven't done enough to help.
Over in the 20,000-seat Pepsi Center, abortion was only a passing theme in nightly televised meetings. The presidents of Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) praised Obama for his pro-abortion voting record.
The senator has pledged that he would protect Roe v. Wade and sign the Freedom of Choice Act, a bill that could negate many state restrictions on abortions. (The legislation has never passed Congress.) The senator also co-sponsored an amendment to repeal the Mexico City policy, which prohibits federal funding for organizations that promote or perform abortions overseas.
But most of those details were lost in the frenzy of the convention. Instead, attendees listened with rapt attention to speakers like Sen. Hillary Clinton, who offered a rousing tribute to feminism and her own candidacy and praised Obama in the context of her own achievements.
Clinton also praised Michelle Obama, who presented a decidedly softer image during her primetime speech, earnestly speaking about her commitment to her children and "the man I fell in love with." A day later, Mrs. Obama appeared with Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a gala for EMILY's list, a pro-abortion women's group.
Even with overflow crowds and hour-long lines to pass through security at the Pepsi Center, the whole week seemed like an appetizer
to the main course everyone was waiting for: Obama's speech before 75,000 people in Invesco Field. As droves of police officers patrolled the streets in groups of 12 or more, clad in helmets, shields, and armored vests, Obama supporters donned buttons, T-shirts, hats, jewelry, and scads of other gear packed on every street corner, including a white shirt with bright blue letters that read: "The only truth that stands is Obama."