Evangelicals still line up behind Crist

His stances don't align with religious conservatives, but they still dislike Democrats.

Published October 20, 2006

MIAMI - Republican Charlie Crist supports embryonic stem cell research, is hands-off on gay civil unions and has no aspirations of changing abortion laws.

He still hopes to win the votes of conservative Christians.

And despite the gubernatorial candidate's moderate social stance, Crist does show signs of strong support among the type of religious voters seen as the GOP's soul.

Experts say the question is not whether conservative Christians will cast their votes for Crist instead of his Democratic opponent, Rep. Jim Davis. It's whether they'll cast them at all.

"You're talking about the core of the party, and if they're not excited, it's unclear that they'll mobilize," said Kenneth Wald, a University of Florida professor who has written numerous books on politics and religion. "They certainly won't vote Democratic, at least I don't think so, but many of them could just choose not to vote. And if that happens, the Republicans can be in trouble."

Nationally, political observers think numerous Republican-held seats in Congress are at risk and the chance that the Christian right might stay home doesn't help the GOP. But in Florida, Crist has a strong lead in numerous polls, so evangelicals' votes might not be so important to him.

Either way, David Gutterman, the author of Prophetic Politics and a professor at Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore., said many conservative Christians keep supporting Republicans, even if they have to compromise their values along the way.

"You have this feeling that, regardless, it's better to have our governor be a Republican," he said. That is a sentiment heard again and again in conversations with conservative Christians.

Angelo Scouras calls Crist the lesser of two evils. Barbara Collier says she has to make sure the candidate most like her is the one that wins. Lorna Bryan says there's no other choice.

"The people of faith will do what their faith tells them to do," said Bryan, a 59-year-old Presbyterian from Miramar. "To say that we're not going to vote Republican is ludicrous."

Many evangelicals lined up behind Tom Gallagher in the GOP gubernatorial primary. Gallagher previously ran for governor with moderate stances on social issues, but this time ran with positions nearly identical to Gov. Jeb Bush's, including a relatively new opposition to abortion rights.

It didn't work - Crist crushed him.

The evangelicals express disappointment over Gallagher's loss but say they must unite to fight what they see as a greater threat - losing the governor's office to a Democrat.

Crist spokeswoman Erin Isaac said the evangelical voting bloc is just one of many the candidate is courting.

"Charlie Crist is reaching out to all Floridians," Isaac said. "The support of evangelical voters is important, just as the support of African-Americans and fiscal conservatives is important. Charlie Crist wants to be the people's governor."

It would seem Crist's positions would create an opportunity for Davis to capitalize on. He simply says he stands up for the majority of voters' values.

Collier, who works in Fort Lauderdale at the Center for Reclaiming America for Christ and who heads the Christian Coalition of Broward County, said it doesn't matter that there is distance between her and Crist on some issues.

"He supports my values more than the Democrat," she said.

Whether the recent scandal in the 16th Congressional District surrounding disgraced Republican Rep. Mark Foley will affect conservative evangelicals' turnout remains to be seen.

For now, conservative Christians who are backing Crist are doing so with a smile. It is after the election that they say they would exert more pressure to hold him to more socially conservative positions.

"I suppose we have to teach Charlie," Bryan said.