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Issue of Moral Values Crucial in US Election Outcome

One of the more surprising results of this year's U.S. presidential election was the number of voters who cited moral values as a major issue in the campaign. National correspondent Jim Malone has more on the impact of moral values in the 2004 election and what it may mean for the future.

For months, political experts predicted that this year's election would be decided on three main issues, Iraq, the war on terrorism and the domestic economy.

But voter surveys found that people cited moral values as their number one concern more than any other issue. Twenty-two percent of those asked chose moral issues, compared to 20 percent for the economy and 19 percent for terrorism.

Of those who mentioned moral values as their top issue, 80 percent voted for President George Bush. For voters who said the economy was their main concern, 80 percent supported Senator John Kerry.

The focus on moral values came as no surprise to Bush supporters.

"The reason that he was re-elected is very clear," said one man. "He is an honest, good, moral, upright, courageous, brave man."

"This is the very first time that I have felt that God was in the White House," said another supporter.

Republicans say a focus on moral values was part of their victory plan all along. This is Republican Party Chairman Ed Gillespie.

"I said from the outset that this was an election that was going to be decided on national security issues, the economy and who shares our values and to a certain extent in an equal mix," he said. "Well, it was. Twenty-two percent of voters said that values were a concern when they cast their ballot."

Political experts have noted a trend in recent elections that tends to divide Americans between religious and non-religious voters.

"Basically, the way it works is that the more often and regularly you go to church or synagogue, the more likely you are to vote Republican," said Stephen Wayne, who has written about the history of U.S. elections at Georgetown University in Washington. "And the less regularly you go to church or if you never go to church, the more likely you are to vote Democratic. So clearly, the religious people are much more in the Republican camp and the Republicans and their policy appeal to this."

Four years ago, Republicans were disappointed in the turnout of conservative Christian voters for President Bush.

American University presidential historian Allan Lichtman says the Republicans were determined to boost that turnout this year. He spoke on VOA's Press Conference USA program.

"American politics today is cleanly divided by race and religion," he said. "Last time, 75 percent of evangelical Protestant voters voted for George Bush. It was not a matter of converting them. You know, if you have a 75 percent vote, you get it to the polls."

President Bush says he is grateful for the support of religious voters. But he downplays the notion that the election results indicate a growing religious divide in the country.

"I will be your president regardless of your faith and I don't expect you to agree with me necessarily on religion," he said. "As a matter of fact, no president should ever try to impose religion on our society."

Voters concerned about moral values cited issues like abortion and gay marriage. Voters in 11 states approved bans on gay marriage on Election Day and many experts believe the national debate on that issue helped to boost conservative turnout in favor of the president.

The Reverend Joe Watkins advised the Bush campaign this year how to win over African-American voters concerned about moral issues. He says both parties need to recognize the importance of moral issues among voters.

"I think a lot of people just want an America that embraces who they are," he said. "And that means not only people on the [political] left, but people on the right and people in the center as well. There are a lot of people of faith who just want their faith to matter."

During the campaign, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was a frequent visitor to African-American churches, where he quoted from the Bible and tried to assure religious voters that he shared their moral concerns.

"What does it mean, my brother, to say you have faith if there are no deeds? Faith without works is dead," he said.

But Democratic political strategists like Paul Begala acknowledge that their party underestimated the impact of religion and moral values on the election.

"Democrats, my party, has got to do a better job of respecting people's cultural values and connecting with them," he said.

Pennsylvania Governor and former Democratic Party chairman Ed Rendell says Democrats must adjust their strategy or run the risk of further defeats in future elections. He spoke on NBC television.

"I think you have to put them more into family values than just moral issues," he said. "And we did not make our case well enough that if you talk about family values, you had better value the things that are important to families like child care for working women, like health care for all Americans. That is our basic strength as a party."

Many Democrats say they fear the president's re-election victory may lead to more vigorous Republican attempts to impose moral and religious values on government policy. But they also acknowledge they must find a way to connect with at least some of the voters who focus on moral values in order to compete successfully against the Republicans in the next national election.