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Top evangelicals await invitation to convention

/ Source: The Associated Press

Some prominent evangelical Christians say they have not been invited to participate in or attend the Republican National Convention less than three weeks before the event is to begin.

Analysts said the move likely reflects a Republican desire to sideline its more polarizing supporters during a tight presidential race, but convention organizers deny that they are marginalizing the religious leaders. Republican strategist Ralph Reed said Wednesday that invitations just started going out to evangelical figures, but he would not release any names.

The Rev. Franklin Graham, who delivered the invocation at President Bush’s inauguration, has had no request to attend so far, said Mark DeMoss, a spokesman for Graham.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell, who offered a prayer at the 2000 convention, said he has not yet been asked to do so this year. He plans to go “quietly in and quietly out” of the New York event, although he insisted that no one in the Republican campaigns asked him to keep a low profile.

Robertson to skip convention
The Rev. Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition and a onetime Republican presidential candidate, said, “I’ve had no request from anybody to be there.” Unlike Falwell, Robertson believes the Republican Party is deliberately keeping him and other evangelicals away.

“In the last convention, the thought was to keep all the conservatives out of sight,” said Robertson, who has attended every Republican convention since 1988 but said he would not go this year. “The general thrust will be to entice the so-called independent moderates, and I am not sure that there would be much reason for a conservative to be there.”

Reed, a former executive director of the Christian Coalition, said that the Republicans had used no such strategy and that conservative Christians would have a central role at the convention, which is set to begin Aug. 30.

“There is a specific program under way to invite social conservatives and religious leaders of a very broad or diverse representations, and that is even under way as we speak,” Reed said.

Republicans are doing everything possible to turn out the evangelical vote, because conservative Christians are among Bush’s core supporters. The president’s chief political strategist, Karl Rove, has estimated that 4 million conservative Christians did not vote in 2000, and the campaign is working hard to prevent that from happening this Election Day.

Party insiders
Analysts say denying a prominent spot to leaders such as Robertson or Falwell likely will not hurt this effort. John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron in Ohio, said that after years of activism in Republican campaigns, conservative Christians were now party insiders who may not require a specific religious appeal at the convention.

“Evangelicals are likely to be strongly represented at the convention, but within the ranks of the GOP and the Bush campaign,” Green said. “Key movement leaders, like Ralph Reed and Gary Bauer, may well attend but as party leaders, not evangelical figures.”

In addition, many evangelicals no longer look to Robertson or Falwell as their top representatives. A survey conducted last spring for PBS’s “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly” and U.S. News & World Report found that fewer than half of evangelicals had a favorable view of Falwell, while only a slight majority viewed Robertson favorably.

“People who are not part of the religious right might be alienated if they put too many conservatives as the public face of the party,” said Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta.

A more popular and influential evangelical, James Dobson of Focus on the Family, is not interested in attending the convention, said his spokesman, Paul Hetrick. Dobson this year started a political action organization and said he would vote for Bush.

A spokeswoman for Bauer did not respond to requests for comment.

Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition, said she was not concerned about which evangelicals were invited because so many would be among the delegates and party leaders. This year, her organization will have a quieter presence at this convention. The group has dropped plans for a rally because of security concerns, she said.

“We’ll have a huge presence there,” she said. “We have the president.”