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Des Moines Register: Candidates focus on Christian beliefs

By Stephen Buttry/Des Moines Register

December 15, 1999
Web posted at: 10:44 a.m. EST (1544 GMT)

Des Moines RegisterDES MOINES, Iowa (Des Moines Register) -- Jesus and God are unofficial but often-mentioned running mates of the Republican candidates for president.

Five of the six candidates at Monday night's debate in Des Moines sponsored by WHO-TV invoked the name of God or Christ, or both. In all, candidates made more than 20 direct references to the father and son of the Holy Trinity of the Christian faith.

The sixth candidate, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, an Episcopalian, is running radio ads in South Carolina that stress his Christian faith.

The debate illustrated the importance Republican candidates place on wooing Christian voters, publicly declaring their personal faith and stating issues in religious terms.

In the Democratic race, Vice President Al Gore, a Baptist, speaks often about his own faith. Former Sen. Bill Bradley, a Presbyterian, avoids discussion of his faith in the campaign, calling it a personal matter.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush, a Methodist who leads the Republican race in opinion polls and fund-raising, gave the most personal testimony in Monday's debate. Each candidate was asked what "political philosopher or thinker" he identified with most. (In an interview Tuesday morning with Des Moines Register reporters and editors, Bush said he understood the question to be, "Who"s had the most influence on your life?")

Bush, the third candidate to answer in the debate, said, "Christ, because he changed my heart."

Moderator John Bachman pressed for more and Bush added: "When you turn your heart and your life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as the savior, it changes your heart. It changes your life. And that's what happened to me."

Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Mormon from Utah, followed Bush. Hatch cited Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan as his political role models, then added: "But I bear witness to Christ, too. I really know him to be the savior of the world. And that means more to me than almost anything else I know."

Gary Bauer, a Baptist, quoted Scripture in naming Christ as his favorite political thinker. "If America's in trouble in the next century, it will be because we forgot what he taught us," Bauer said.

Candidates were trying to reach the 100,000 to 120,000 Iowa Republicans planning to attend precinct caucuses Jan. 24.

An Iowa Poll published in November showed that 40 percent of likely Republican caucus participants consider themselves evangelical or "born again" Christians. The poll showed that 30 percent were other Protestants and 17 percent were Catholic. The Republicans planning to attend caucuses were heavily opposed to abortion, with 62 percent saying it should be illegal.

In Tuesday's Register interview, Bush stressed that people should vote for him because of his plans and because they trust him. "People shouldn't vote for me because of my religion."

He said his program to involve faith-based organizations in providing social services extends to non-Christian religions.

The candidates weave religious references and moral issues into their campaigns in a variety of ways.

Bauer and conservative commentator Alan Keyes, both of whom trail in opinion polls and fund raising, stress abortion and other moral issues that they frequently relate to religion. Each mentioned God several times Monday.

In response to a question about school violence, Keyes, a Catholic, said the nation should "put faith and prayer back in the classroom."

Publisher Steve Forbes, an Episcopalian, also spoke of religion: "We've seen in this century the bloody consequences of not realizing there's a higher authority, that there is God, and that life emanates from God and God only."

McCain, the only candidate who did not refer to God or Christ in Monday night's debate, said Russian aggression in Chechnya "offends our Judeo-Christian values and princi- ples."

In South Carolina, a Bible Belt state that is crucial to McCain's strategy, he is using a radio advertisement in which a former prisoner of war tells of a moving service led by McCain in a POW camp on Christmas Eve 1971.

The Boston Globe quoted the POW as saying, "It was certainly a shot to everyone's morale to hear those Christian words in that very un-Christian-like place."


ELECTION 2000
Full card of Republican presidential pugilists preps for round three (12-13-99) Des Moines Register: Challengers attack Bush on eve of debate (12-13-99)

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