Video: Poll: Voters want religious president

By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 1/7/2004 6:41:09 PM ET 2004-01-07T23:41:09

Religion and politics are receiving some fresh scrutiny now that the election year is officially here. A new poll finds that the deeply divided American electorate is equally divided on the subject of religion. The religious faith and how it's expressed could turn out to be a pivotal election year issue.

An unabashedly religious man, President Bush often talks about God publicly, but does a president's faith really matter to voters?

A new poll by Zogby International
finds Mr. Bush's supporters are religious. In the states he won in 2000, 51 percent of voters say they attend religious services once a week or more. In the states that Vice President Al Gore won only 34 percent attend religious services at least once a week. And across the nation, the poll found most voters want a president who is "deeply religious", 67 percent said so in states which voted for Bush, 51 percent in states which went for Gore.

"Religion is not an issue where Democrats are going to win," says John Zogby, who conducted the poll, "but they're going to have to try to somehow at least neutralize the religious opposition to them."

Zogby says that means focusing on issues, not values, essentially what Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean was trying to do in an interview with MSNBC TV's Chris Matthews in December, when he said, "We`ve got to stop having the campaigns run in this country based on abortion, guns, God and gays and start to put education, jobs and healthcare."

Dean, as the front runner, has plenty of critics who say he is too blunt. But it was his suggestion that religion not be a part of the campaign that's opened Dean up to a different kind of attack, putting his own faith under scrutiny.

Dean was an Episcopalian but he says he left the church after fighting with church officials in Vermont while trying to convince them to donate land for a bike path. He's now a Congregationalist, but says he rarely attends services. Dean's opponents are trying to make faith a new theme — Wesley Clark regularly mentions his Baptist roots on the campaign trail, and Joe Lieberman frequently points out his Jewish religion, most recently in Tuesday's debate on National Public Radio. "Faith," said Lieberman, "is a source of strength and unity."

Al Fromm, strategist and founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, says whoever the nominee, religion must be part of the debate. As part of the process of evaluating them as candidates, says Fromm, the Democrats "need to let the American people understand what those beliefs are."

Values a religious president is sure to make a part of a general election campaign.

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