WASHINGTON – Democrats hope the power of the pulpit will buttress support among blacks, a key voting bloc that must turn out heavily for presidential candidate John Kerry (search) to win the White House.
Campaign officials say the Massachusetts senator plans to continue to appear in his Sunday best at predominantly black church services and meet with clergy. Last Sunday, Kerry attended a Baptist service in Columbus, Ohio, while running mate Sen. John Edwards (search) visited a Baptist church in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe (search) plans to travel around the country over the next week with two high-profile ministers, Al Sharpton (search) and Kerry campaign adviser Jesse Jackson, to mobilize voters and encourage early voting, the DNC says.
Ministers like Charles Booth, pastor of the Mount Olivet Baptist Church in Columbus, which hosted Kerry's visit, say they will continue efforts to encourage people to talk about issues and vote.
"Historically, the African-American community has looked at the African-American church and preachers for at least an analysis of events, issues and candidates," Booth said. "We can't tell people who to vote for, but I think we can tell people about issues. And I think people are wise enough over comments like that as to what to believe in."
Blacks are the Democratic Party's most loyal constituency, although polls show Kerry doesn't have quite the support that Al Gore had in 2000.
Polls also differ on the level of support President Bush holds among blacks. One released Tuesday by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found Bush doubling his support over the last four years.
The center, a Washington-based research group that focuses on issues concerning blacks, found Kerry still holding a wide lead over Bush among black Americans, 69 percent to 18 percent. The group's poll before the 2000 election found Gore leading Bush among blacks, 74 percent to 9 percent.
An AP-Ipsos poll in mid-September found 80 percent of black registered voters backing Kerry, while 7 percent supported Bush. Gore won 90 percent of the black vote four years ago, with Bush at 9 percent, according to exit polls.
General criticism that Kerry faced earlier in the campaign over problems in getting his message out to voters was also true in the black community, says University of Maryland political scientist Ron Walters.
Walters contended Kerry was slow in getting assistance from black religious leaders from the South who have nationwide appeal in a campaign that has been concentrated heavily on influencing swing voters in battleground states.
Church appearances and reaching out to black clergy "is a sure-hand way of getting to a lot of folks who vote," Walters said. "For him to focus on it is essential."
Republican officials say they are also making a more concerted effort to reach out to blacks through religious leaders, such as a Republican National Committee minority outreach event Tuesday in Toledo, Ohio, which included about 30 black ministers. Bush campaign aides have cited issues such as school vouchers and the president's support of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage that could win them more votes.
The president has declined an invitation to sit for an interview with Black Entertainment Television, where Kerry appeared on Oct. 7, the network said Tuesday. BET said White House officials said Bush did not have time for an interview before the election. In response, BET founder Robert Johnson sent a letter to top black administration officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, asking them to urge Bush to reconsider.
The Joint Center poll found Bush with 36 percent support among blacks who consider themselves "Christian conservatives," tripling the 11 percent he received four years ago. Kerry was at 49 percent, down from the 69 percent Gore enjoyed in 2000.
Oliver Kellman, who formed the National Faith-Based Initiatives Coalition in August and announced its support for Bush, said 65 pastors have joined his group.
"The president's strong moral stance has ignited the pastors' perspective on the Republican Party. It's not necessarily the party but the principles we are talking about," said Walter Humphrey, the pastor of Baptist churches in California and Ohio, where he also volunteers for the Bush campaign.
Kerry aides contended their campaign has reached out to black religious leaders throughout the year, although efforts are being scrutinized closer to Election Day. Among more high-profile appearances they noted were Kerry's speech at the National Baptist Convention in September and a meeting with black ministers from around the country earlier this month in Philadelphia.