Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton makes a rare foray into the U.S. evangelical community on Thursday with an address to an AIDS conference that is seen as a bid to woo the religious right.
Clinton is the only one of six invited presidential candidates to attend a meeting on the role of the evangelical church in fighting the AIDS pandemic, hosted by the influential Saddleback Valley Community Church in Southern California.
Saddleback's 4-year-old AIDS initiative already is controversial in America's 60 million-strong evangelical community.
It seeks to turn church-goers into volunteers, educators and care-givers of AIDS victim. Evangelicals generally have shunned the HIV/AIDS issue in their opposition to gay rights.
But inviting Clinton to the vast Saddleback campus, where 22,000 people attend services every week, is like a red flag to a bull. White, Republican-leaning conservative Christians object to her support of abortion and gay rights and many see her as the most divisive and liberal of the Democratic contenders.
"It is a mistake to invite her to speak at an evangelical Christian church on AIDS or any other issue because her political stances are contrary to biblical teaching," said Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, which has 2.8 million supporters.
"What Saddleback is doing is helping raise her profile as a legitimate presidential candidate in the eyes of evangelical Christians and I think that is a huge error," Wildmon told Reuters.
Saddleback pastor Rick Warren, author of the best-selling inspirational book "The Purpose Driven Life," said there were many issues on which Clinton and his church disagree.
"But when millions are dying each year we are interested in lives, not labels," Warren said. "We want everyone to become concerned about the AIDS pandemic."
Clinton has much to gain from a good reception at the conference, which features 90 speakers and 1,500 people representing churches and non-governmental organizations.
Some Democrats have expressed concern about Clinton's electability in a tight race with the Republicans. A Zogby Interactive poll released on Monday showed she trailed the top five Republican contenders in hypothetical general election match-ups by 3 to 5 percentage points, although her top rivals Obama and Edwards would defeat them.
Warren's wife, Kay, who started the Saddleback campaign four years ago, takes a pragmatic approach to charges that both Clinton and Saddleback are using the other for different ends.
"Of course (the presidential candidates) are looking to maximize their message in every segment of society," she said. "But we feel we are able to influence them and say what are you going to do about it?"
Clinton this week outlined an AIDS policy similar to her Democrat rivals that sees an expansion of federal efforts to combat HIV/AIDS globally.
Despite scathing attacks on several Christian message boards, the invitation to Clinton has not prompted the organized protest seen a year ago over Obama's visit to Saddleback. That controversy also centered on abortion.
"I don't know if it's just people shrugging their shoulders and saying -- oh! that Saddleback group. Or if it reflects an understanding we have tried to portray that you don't have to agree with everyone to have a conversation about how we make progress," Kay Warren said.