(KRT) DALLAS – Their seeds planted 20-plus years ago by the Moral Majority, America’s values voters blossomed this year into a political force that could portend a lasting Republican majority.

No longer driven to the polls primarily by abortion and school prayer, evangelical Christians and cultural conservatives focused on gay marriage but also displayed electoral clout on a geopolitical issue – the war on terrorism – that isn’t likely to fade anytime soon.

Their message: They trust Republicans – especially President Bush – far more than Democrats to keep them safe, a blend of religious and geopolitical convictions that escaped many analysts before Tuesday’s vote.

“That’s part of how you see the City on the Hill,” said Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego. “Do you have a right to do it different from others or not? Is going it alone safer than working with allies or not?

“It’s very much the cultural sorting that’s going on in this country.”

More than one in five voters Tuesday identified moral values as their No. 1 issue – and the vast majority of them backed Bush, helped Republicans expand their congressional power and ensured landslide victories in 11 states on referendums banning same-sex marriage.

All this, despite conceding that the war in Iraq isn’t going well, nor is the economy as strong as they’d like.

It reflects a new, national political reality: Hearing a sharper, more compelling GOP message, many values voters came to see Democrats as the enemies of traditional American values, godless and gay-loving and weak on defense, analysts said.

“Bush offered moral clarity,” said John Pitney, a political scientist at California’s Claremont McKenna College. “He was much more likely to speak of right and wrong, good and evil. He was more visible in his religious conviction.

“Kerry increasingly emphasized religion toward the end of the campaign, but I don’t think it quite took.”

David Adams, a Democrat and history professor at Cleveland State University, described the placement of 11 state ballots on gay marriage as “a shrewd move” in increasing Bush’s support. But the issue alone would not have put Bush over the top in Ohio, for instance, he said. “If the war on terrorism had not been there, Kerry would have carried Ohio,” he said.

Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry did carry two states – Oregon and Michigan – that also passed gay marriage bans, and one observer saw a silver lining for Democrats in how “moral values” are defined.

“We have in Oregon a whole set of economic issues which many people understand to be values-based issues,” said Sandra Morgen, director of the Center for the Study of Women in Society at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

“It is a value to have a job that can support a family. It is a value not to have people starving. It is a value that we not have such a great degree of economic inequality. So to the extent that we see the moral context being what swayed people, what I think we need to understand is there’s more to values in this country right now than gay marriage and abortion.”

It’s too early to know, experts say, whether Tuesday’s results represent a permanent political realignment. But near term, analysts say, the GOP is in control of the nation’s agenda – including the selection of federal judges.

“The Republicans know what they want, and they articulate it well and they defend it very well,” said Bob Darcy, an Oklahoma State University political scientist.

“The Democrats don’t know what they want – except they want to govern. Or they won’t admit what they want. The question is, can Democrats articulate an alternative?”

The red state-blue state divide, experts say, illustrates the challenge facing Democrats: For the second straight presidential election, they carried only the West Coast, New England and some upper Midwest states.

While the two major parties split America’s suburbs almost evenly, Kerry scored big in larger, urban centers, while Bush carried rural areas – helping explain the sea of red, Republican states that dominates the national electoral map.

Bush and Republicans, experts say, maximized turnout in those areas, where residents typically view the world much differently – and much more traditionally.

“The Christian part is very important,” said Popkin, the University of California at San Diego professor, “but it’s more tradition than it is explicit issues … it’s provincials against big cities.”

Exit polls showed that religion is a key in the American political divide: Among the 40 percent that attend church weekly, Bush captured 60 percent of the vote. In fact, Bush was the choice of 95 percent of white, religious conservatives who attend church weekly.

By contrast, Kerry was the favorite of those who only occasionally – or never – worship, perhaps reflecting, analysts say, a backlash among some Americans toward what they view as overbearing, self-righteous religious zealots.

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Tuesday’s results already are spurring debate over the significance of so-called values voters.

Tony Perkins, president of the Washington-based Family Research Council, said, “Supporters of traditional marriage helped President Bush down the aisle to a second term.”

“We are optimistic given the significant increase in faith-driven participation in the moral future of our great nation,” he said in a prepared statement. “We are confident that we can win the culture war.”

William Bennett, the former federal education secretary, said in an online column that he believes Bush “now has a mandate to affect policy that will promote a more decent society, through both politics and law.”

Others, though, caution against reading too much into the results, noting that landslide re-election victories for Republican Ronald Reagan in 1984 and Democrat Bill Clinton in 1996 preceded congressional gains for the other party in the 1986 and 1998 elections, respectively.

“You’re a tweak or two away from a total reversal,” said Popkin. “It’s not a realignment unless these people stay involved or keep coming out.”



(c) 2004, The Dallas Morning News.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.



AP-NY-11-03-04 2048EST


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