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Published: Wednesday, 1/7/2004

Spotty church attendance might hurt Dean, polls report

BY ANN McFEATTERS
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WASHINGTON - The newfound focus on Democratic presidential front-runner Howard Dean s casual approach to church - he often skips services - would be a potential problem for him in a general election, according to polls.

A poll of 1,200 likely voters taken Dec. 15-17 by independent pollster John Zogby commissioned by the O Leary Report and released yesterday found that in the states President Bush carried in 2000, 51 percent said they attend church at least once a week.

Mr. Zogby said the religious divide is one of the most surprising aspects of his recent polling on American values. A non-church-going lifestyle may help Mr. Dean in states that Al Gore won in 2000, where 46 percent say they do not regularly attend church, Mr. Zogby said, but it won t help him win a national election.

In general, 67 percent of Americans in states that voted for Bush in 2000 say they want their president to be a regular church-goer, said Bradley O Leary, a Republican activist and Bush supporter. That compares with just 51 percent of those voters in states that went for Mr. Gore.

Mr. Bush, a Methodist, does not go to church every Sunday but is accompanied by a pool of reporters and cameras when he does, and he often invokes God in speeches. He was both praised and criticized for frequently talking about God in his prewar speeches about Iraq.

In recent days Mr. Dean, who wants to win the Iowa Democratic caucuses Jan. 19 and the New Hampshire primary Jan. 27, has publicly talked about feeling pressed to talk more about religion and his views about it. Mr. Dean, a medical doctor who likes to talk political process with reporters, said he now realizes that religion is an important part of stumping for votes, especially in the South.

Mr. Dean told reporters last week, “I am not used to wearing religion on my sleeve and being open about it.”

Mr. Dean was reared an Episcopalian but left the church.



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