NEW YORK (CNN) -- Tired of being seen by religious voters as too secular or even hostile toward religion, the Democratic Party and its presidential candidates have launched an all-out effort to win their votes.
Democratic presidential candidates John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama at a recent Sojourners forum on religion and politics.
This effort is apparent on the stump, where many of the Democratic candidates speak openly of religion and God and present moral justifications for their policies. It's also going on behind the scenes, with presidential campaigns hiring strategists to coordinate their outreach to religious communities and holding weekly conference calls with religious leaders.
"It has to be authentic. This is not about Jesus-ing up the party, so to speak ... It just won't work if it's seen as a cynical ploy," said Mara Vanderslice, a Democratic strategist and evangelical Christian.
In 2004, Vanderslice was hired to coordinate John Kerry's religious outreach. She found herself working without a staff or much of a budget. She says the Kerry campaign failed to engage the faith community before it was too late to make a difference.
In the past, "there was almost a joke that you couldn't be a Christian and be a Democrat," she said.
Many voters wouldn't disagree with the joke, according to recent polling. In the 2006 midterm elections, 53 percent of weekly churchgoers voted Republican, as did 60 percent of people who attend church more than once a week, according to exit poll data. What's more, a Pew Forum poll taken just before the election showed only 26 percent of voters considered Democrats friendly to religion.
The leading Democratic presidential candidates are trying to overcome this so-called "God Gap." Democratic candidates not shy about religion »
"They want to pull away even several percentage points of religious people who up to now have voted Republican," said Michael Cromartie, who studies religion and politics at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. "Remember, just a few percentage points in any number of states can change an election."
Senator Hillary Clinton has talked about how faith saw her through the turmoil of Bill Clinton's infidelity and political difficulties. Senator John Edwards openly speaks of his "deep and abiding love for [his] Savior, Jesus Christ." Senator Barack Obama has long woven the language of religion into his call for shared responsibility and social justice.
Even bigger changes have taken place behind the scenes.
Clinton and Obama have both hired strategists to coordinate faith outreach. Obama also has a faith point person in each of the three early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. His campaign held a series of "Faith, Action, Change" forums with New Hampshire voters and hosts weekly conference calls for religious leaders.
Team Clinton has assembled a Faith Steering Committee, with working groups targeting individual denominations. Edwards' campaign says it is leaning on his Campaign Manager David Bonior to help rally Catholics, considered a key swing constituency.
Changes are taking place with the party organization too. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, who railed against "fundamentalist preachers" during his presidential campaign, is reaching out to evangelicals and other religious groups. Over the past 3 years, the DNC built a faith operation from scratch including a Faith Advisory Council, a research wing, polling and targeted messaging. They're partnering with state parties to bring local clergy members into the tent.
Dean, himself, has increased his visibility at religious gatherings and conducted briefings with religious leaders across the ideological spectrum. He was the first DNC chairman to appear at the Hispanic prayer breakfast.
"Contrary to partisan rhetoric, the truth is that Democrats are people of strong faith and we are guided by our values," he said at the breakfast.
As they seek to increase ties to religious organizations and voters, Democrats are taking a page from the Republican playbook. Republicans have long counted on conservative religious voters as one of their core constituencies.
But Democrats are also trying to build on some success they had in the 2006 election, when Vanderslice helped craft faith-based strategies for several Democratic congressional candidates. She urged them to speak openly about their religion, meet with members of the clergy and advertise on Christian radio.
In one radio ad, Heath Shuler of North Carolina said, "When I was in 8th grade, my mother gave me a note that read 'Heath, make every decision as if I'm standing beside you, for when I'm not, Jesus Christ always is.'" Schuler won, and like Vanderslice's other candidates, he scored significant gains among religious voters.
There is a risk to all this. If voters feel Democrats are projecting false faith, the new religious outreach could well backfire. For Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, some of the political faith testimonials don't ring true.
"I can't probe into the souls of people," he said. "But sometimes I think that when they never talked about that before and now they're talking about it, you wonder what kind of focus group told them to do that." E-mail to a friend
Producer Jason White contributed to this report
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