"Faith vote" big in Pennsylvania primary

MECHANICSBURG, Pennsylvania Wed Apr 16, 2008 4:07pm EDT

1 of 5. US Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) addresses members of the Alliance for American Manufacturing on the challenges facing America's manufacturers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on April 14, 2008.

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MECHANICSBURG, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Darwin McAfee is a white evangelical Protestant who is opposed to abortion and likes the great outdoors.

This makes him a prototype Republican. But he's a registered Democrat who plans to support New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in next week's crucial Pennsylvania primary.

"I'm a registered Democrat and I'll probably go for Hillary. I think it's a change, I'd like to see a lady get in there," said McAfee, 50, a Pennsylvania resident who works for the water department in the neighboring state of Maryland.

Analysts say the "faith vote" is in play in the April 22 primary, the next big fight in Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The Democratic rivals answered issues questions about faith and policy on Sunday at a forum held at Messiah College, near the state capitol of Harrisburg.

The Pennsylvania "faith vote" could also prove crucial come the November presidential showdown, with the Democratic primary providing a possible glimpse of things to come.

Pennsylvania is a so-called swing state because it can go with either major party and margins of victory there are usually slim. Religious affiliation is often the hinge for these shifts.

Take the white evangelical Protestant vote in the state.

In 2004 President George W. Bush got almost 80 percent of the ballots cast by white evangelical Protestant nationwide.

But according to University of Akron political scientist John Green, in Pennsylvania in 2004 Democratic presidential contender John Kerry did much better among this group than he did nationally, getting 37 percent of their votes there.

Analysts see room for Democratic gains here in November and a real battle now for their votes between Obama and Clinton. About a fifth of the state's adult population is evangelical according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public life.

"I think you will find a lot of evangelicals here will break for Obama. His charisma and message resonate with evangelicals who have expanded their agenda to look beyond abortion and gay marriage," said Dean Curry, a political scientist at Messiah College.

GOD, GUNS AND REV. WRIGHT

But Obama has two potential drawbacks with this crowd: his recent comments about economically frustrated residents in the state clinging to "guns and religion" and the outrage over sermons by his pastor Jeremiah Wright in which he branded America as racist and the September 11 attacks as "payback."

Weeks after the story first broke the most e-mailed story in the Philadelphia Inquirer was a commentary about Obama's operatives and their underhanded use of "race baiting" which led with the storm over Wright's "hateful views."

Evangelical Protestants who tend to be patriotic might find Wright's comments especially offensive and a lot of them are also fond of their "guns and God."

But several Pennsylvanians including a few who identified themselves as evangelical told Reuters these issues did not faze them -- including those asked outside a Bass Pro shop which caters to hunters and gun-owners.

"I keep an open mind. Whatever people say others will use to their advantage," said network technician Chris Allwein.

Still, they have been noted in some quarters.

"As a Catholic it's clear that's what was called liberation theology in Latin America ... Reverend Wright is only spouting what was a wrong theology and practicing Catholics are aware of this," said Kevin Bagatta, an attorney and conservative Catholic who lives near Harrisburg.

The Catholic vote in Pennsylvania is also an important one. Kerry took a narrow majority of 51 percent of this vote in 2004 when he won the state.

About 29 percent of the state's adults count themselves as Catholic and several interviewed by Reuters said they would vote for Republican candidate John McCain in the November election because of his opposition to abortion.

But analysts say blue collar Catholics in Pennsylvania with economic concerns will likely lean toward Clinton in next week's primary and again in November.

For some of the state's evangelicals, bread-and-butter issues are also key as the economy falters.

For blue collar evangelical and Clinton man McAfee, who has a 120-mile round trip commute to work every day, the soaring price of gas and stagnant wages are his big concerns.

"I'm for the lower class," the affable baseball hat-clad McAfee told Reuters outside a garden center on the rural outskirts of the small Pennsylvania town of Mechanicsburg.

(editing by David Wiessler)

(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at http:/blogs.reuters.com/trail08/ )

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