NEW YORK - The Bush-Cheney campaign is targeting evangelical voters, who senior White House aide Karl Rove insists are key to President Bush's re-election.
While Mr. Bush is pulling even or slightly ahead in the polls against Democratic nominee John Kerry, he is lagging behind Mr. Kerry in attracting female voters.
Women, said Matthew Dowd, senior strategist for the Bush campaign, care about such "values issues" as a ban on partial birth abortion, parental consent for teenagers seeking abortions, and making the fetus of a murdered pregnant women such as Laci Peterson also a murder victim for the purposes of prosecution, all of which President Bush has supported.
Those issues are "where John Kerry is out of the mainstream,'' said Ken Mehlman, Mr. Bush's campaign chairman.
Mr. Rove said the biggest issues facing the country are the war, the economy, and the "values of our country." He said Mr. Bush "is in sync with the American people, his opponent is not."
At the Democratic convention in Boston, Mr. Kerry said his values are affordable health care, better education, and an America that gets along with the rest of the world.
He said those are more universally approved than banning gay marriage or permitting prayer in public schools.
Evangelical voters did not vote in large numbers in 2000 - an estimated four million stayed home - because they were not convinced Mr. Bush was sufficiently conservative on social issues they value.
They felt his father, former President George H.W. Bush, had let them down and didn't know how conservative the son would be.
For four years Mr. Rove has been insisting that Mr. Bush move further to the right on social issues to cultivate those would-be voters, convinced they could make the difference in an election that the Bush campaign expects to be as close as three or four points.
Some think 2004 could be a near-repeat of 2000, when the election wasn't decided for 37 days and the Supreme Court intervened to stop the Florida vote recount. Mr. Bush won Florida with just over 500 votes.
With consumer confidence still lagging and the war in Iraq a drain on the President's popularity, the Bush campaign believes the constitutional amendment Mr. Bush is proposing to ban gay marriage, despite the muted opposition of Vice President Dick Cheney, who has a gay daughter, is a potential boon to the President.
Senator Kerry does not support gay marriage but neither does he approve of amending the Constitution to ban it.
Polls show that the majority of Americans do not support gay marriage, though they are also uneasy about openly discriminating against gays.
A Pew Research Center poll a year ago found that 6 out of 10 Americans would not want to see a gay teacher fired, for example.
In the parade of speakers at the GOP convention this week, speaker after speaker said they support Mr. Bush because he stands for "American values."
Generally, they identify those as pursuit of freedom, patriotism, and fighting terrorism.
A new poll of more than 20,000 voters by Zogby International, taken in mid August and provided to Knight Ridder Newspapers, found that among 2.6 million "persuadable" or undecided voters, Mr. Kerry wins on the issues of war in Iraq and the economy, but Mr. Bush wins on "values."
But GOP convention planners have been careful not to include anti-gay marriage or anti-abortion rhetoric in the prime-time speeches, much to the dismay of Gary Bauer, conservative presidential candidate in 2000 and a "family values" activist.
Mr. Bauer said that if he were running the convention, he would make abortion and opposition to same-sex marriage the subject of key prime-time speeches.
He argues that that Republicans should not be afraid to put those issues front and center. Mr. Bauer tells reporters he definitely wants President Bush to win re-election but that with an approval rating of below 50 percent, always a danger signal for an incumbent president, "we have to be really aggressive [on social issues] to pull this out."
The conservative Family Research Council is handing out thousands of fortune cookies at the convention to promote four messages - supporting a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, impeaching "activist judges,'' permitting adult stem cell research to find a cure for such diseases as Alzheimer's, but banning embryonic stem cell research on the grounds that aborted fetuses could be used to obtain such cells, and banning human cloning.
One "fortune" read, "Real men marry women." Another says, "No. 1 reason to ban human cloning: Hillary Clinton."
But key strategists for the Bush-Cheney campaign say it's not necessary to talk about such divisive issues as abortion in the three hours of convention coverage by the major TV networks. They say the issues Americans want to hear about are winning the war on terrorism, the economy, job creation, and health care.
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