Republican evangelical support has peaked: analyst

KEY WEST, Florida Mon May 5, 2008 6:55pm EDT

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KEY WEST, Florida (Reuters) - Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain will almost certainly garner less of the evangelical vote in November than the almost 80 percent that President George W. Bush took in 2004, a former top Bush aide said on Monday.

Michael Gerson, a former Bush speechwriter and adviser who is now with the Council on Foreign Relations, predicted at a conference on religion and politics in Key West, Florida, that Bush's 2004 totals among this key voting bloc won't be matched by the Republican Party for a long time.

He pointed among other factors to "a candidate like John McCain who doesn't have a specifically religious appeal."

By contrast he noted that Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were both more comfortable talking about their faith than McCain, who was raised in a mainline Episcopal tradition but who now attends a Baptist Church in Phoenix.

Gerson also noted that "evangelicals experience the same kind of economic concerns" as other Americans as the pain from a housing and credit crisis spreads.

Bush had the support of 78 percent of the white evangelical Protestants who cast ballots in the 2004 election by some estimates and about one in four U.S. adults count themselves as evangelical.

"2004 was really a high point for evangelical enthusiasm and support for George W. Bush ... I think that in some ways that was an artificial high," he told Reuters on the sidelines of the conference, organized by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

While the party will still win the lion's share of the evangelical vote in the November election, "I don't think that Republicans going forward are likely to equal (Bush's) share of the evangelical vote," said Gerson, a leading evangelical intellectual who is also a columnist with the Washington Post.

The evangelical movement has been broadening its agenda beyond the hot-button social issues of abortion and gay marriage that defined much of its public face in the past and which were used to get out the vote for the Republican Party.

But Gerson said that the Democratic Party's in-roads with evangelicals which were opened to an extent by this widening agenda remained constrained by the party's support for abortion rights -- the issue which remained the litmus test for many evangelical voters including younger ones.

(Editing by Jim Loney and Cynthia Osterman)

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