Richard Land had never met one-on-one with a chairman of the Democratic National Committee. The Tennessee evangelist, an influential force in the Southern Baptist Convention, generally views such people as adversaries, if not enemies. So consider his surprise when, at a nonpartisan leadership conference over the New Year's holiday, Howard Dean leaned in and said he'd love to get together for a private chat. Land agreed to meet for coffee at a downtown Washington hotel. He was wary: "I brought a witness," he jokes now. Dean was there to chip away at Land's loyalty to the GOP, and strangely, Land found himself warming to the liberal Democrat. Among other things, he admired Dean's frugality. "He hauled his own suitcase around, and the Capitol Hill Suites isn't exactly fancy," Land tells NEWSWEEK. "I was impressed." More important, the two men had something to talk about, and did so cordially. "Dean told me how the Democrats were pro-life in that they wanted a country in which abortion was rare. I said, 'I agree, but we disagree how to get there.' Still, it was certainly a change in tone."
For the Democrats, it's a change in tactics as well—an audacious, if not quixotic, effort to win over a constituency that has been solidly Republican for a quarter century. Dean and other Democratic strategists hope to take advantage of deepening discontent with the GOP among some evangelicals. As a movement, conservative Christians have yet to get fired up about any of the leading Republican presidential candidates. There was a brief wave of enthusiasm for Fred Thompson, but that may be ebbing. One of the nation's most influential evangelicals, James Dobson, wrote a scathing e-mail about Thompson, obtained by the Associated Press last week, in which he objected to the candidate's opposition to a constitutional marriage amendment and said Thompson had "no passion, no zeal." Meanwhile, Mitt Romney suffers among some evangelicals because of bias against his Mormon faith. Front runner Rudy Giuliani leaves conservative Christians particularly cold. "If the Republicans are foolish enough to nominate the pro-choice Giuliani, that will give the Democratic Party license to hunt for evangelical votes," says Land, who has been contacted by both the Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns. "I don't know how successful they'll be, but at least they'll have that license."
No one expects miracles, of course. Conservative Christians started shifting to the Republicans as the "party of values" in 1979, when Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority. They were the most important bloc of voters in George W. Bush's victories in 2000 and 2004. But the movement is not as cohesive as it once was. Many younger evangelicals are worried about issues beyond the traditional struggles over abortion, school prayer and gay marriage. They're becoming vocal about the environment, AIDS, poverty and genocide—a newer set of "values" that Democrats are more comfortable addressing.
The Democrats see an opening—not to conquer the movement but to harness some of its energy for themselves. "In the past, we've come off as dismissive to evangelicals," Dean tells NEWSWEEK. "But our party has become much more comfortable talking about faith and values." Dean has met with four or five influential evangelicals in addition to Land, sometimes visiting their offices to talk. "Are we going to abandon Roe v. Wade? No. But a lot can be done to prevent teen pregnancy and abortions. There is a lot we do agree on." The DNC under Dean has stepped up its Faith in Action initiative, an outreach program created in the wake of the Democrats' 2004 defeat. Run by a Pentecostal minister, it has trained about 150 people.
Such efforts, along with general disillusionment with Bush, may have already paid off. According to a Pew Research Center survey in February, support for Democratic candidates among white evangelicals under 30 jumped from 16 to 26 percent between the 2004 and 2006 elections. Some evangelical leaders now say they're tired of being viewed as an appendage of the GOP, or any other party. "We want to be viewed as we are—people of faith—not a political bloc," says Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals.
For now, the Democrats' best target may be Hispanics, the fastest-growing subset of evangelicals. They voted strongly in support of Bush in 2004, but many are now angered by the GOP's handling of immigration. "All of a sudden we're a security problem? We're the drug dealers who are destroying the nation?" says Luis Cortés, president of the Esperanza USA network of 10,000 evangelical churches. "If the Republicans choose a candidate who takes a negative stance on immigration, then I believe you will see a large defection." Until now, the only GOP candidate taking a strong, "positive" stance on immigration is John McCain. But Christian conservatives generally reject him, in part because of his push for campaign-finance reform.
Cortés is flirting with the Democrats, or at least they're flirting with him. Since June, he has received several calls from Obama and has met with Clinton and Bill Richardson. Sam Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which represents more than 17,000 churches, also senses a changing mood. If Democratic candidates had called him in 2004, Rodriguez says, he's not sure he "would have even picked up the phone." But now "the GOP has completely abdicated … the evangelical Hispanic vote as a result of the immigration-reform debacle …. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the Democratic Party."
Clinton, Obama and John Edwards all have senior staffers in charge of reaching out to religious groups. "There's a lot of common ground here with evangelicals on the genocide in Darfur, ending human trafficking and making sure that religious liberty is not static around the world," says Burns Strider, director of faith-based operations for the Clinton campaign. (By contrast, talking to evangelicals in 2004 was considered "a waste of resources," says Mara Vanderslice, who was hired by John Kerry only eight months before Election Day to reach out to the faith community.) Obama's national director of religious affairs, Joshua DuBois, says he has contacted more than 75 evangelical leaders since he joined the campaign on its first day. Speaking at an AIDS conference sponsored by the evangelical Rick Warren last year, Obama talked about contraception as a strategy to fight the disease, and "there was a standing ovation," says DuBois. The campaign has hosted more than two dozen "faith and politics" forums in New Hampshire and Iowa and is planning more for South Carolina.
Can the Democrats really become the party of the fundamentalist faithful? By playing footsie with Democrats, at least some evangelicals may be aiming to provoke GOP leaders into giving them more attention. Christian conservatives complain regularly that the Republican Party doesn't hew to their agenda, but they've almost always pulled the red levers in the end. "We're still kind of frozen in the twilight zone with many of the Republican candidates," says Tony Perkins, who heads the conservative Family Research Council. "If the Democrats follow through with substantive policy initiatives that reflect their newfound faith, they could make headway. But it's got to be more than just talk." Darkly, he warns there is always the option of "a third-party candidate for president." That's a signal to both parties: show us some love … or else.