Backstage at the Target Center in Minneapolis before a rally earlier this month, Barack Obama engaged in one of his pregame rituals: the presidential candidate joined a circle of young campaign supporters and staff, clasped hands with those on either side of him and prayed.
Hillary Clinton, his rival for the Democratic nomination, has talked on the campaign trail about the "prayer warriors" who support her, and her campaign has made sure that primary voters know that Clinton used to host church picnics at the governor's mansion in Arkansas.
If the Democratic ticket in November is able to capture a greater share of religious voters than in previous elections, it will be because both Obama and Clinton have rejected their party's traditional fight- or-flight reaction to religion. For decades, the men and women who ran the Democratic Party and its campaigns bought into the conservative spin that the faithful were pro-life, right-wing and most certainly not Democratic voters. Armed with this mind-set, political professionals gave themselves permission to ignore religion and the religious. And in 2004, John Kerry paid the price for that decision.
That year, the Bush-Cheney operation did more with religious outreach than any other campaign in history, deploying a massive parish- and congregation-level mobilization effort. In Florida alone, the G.O.P. employed a state chairwoman for Evangelical outreach who appointed a dozen regional coordinators around the state and designated outreach chairs in each of Florida's 67 counties. Every county chair, in turn, recruited between 30 and 50 volunteers to contact and register their Evangelical neighbors.
The Kerry campaign, meanwhile, hired one junior staff aide with no national campaign experience to oversee religious outreach and allowed her one intern the two had a single telephone between them with which to recruit and contact volunteers.
It didn't take long for religion to become an issue in the campaign. In the spring of 2004, a handful of conservative Catholic bishops began to insist that Kerry, a Roman Catholic, should be denied Communion because of his support for abortion rights. A media frenzy quickly dubbed the "Wafer Watch" soon metastasized, with journalists following Kerry to Mass each Sunday and doing everything but checking his molars for evidence that he had indeed been given Communion.
The candidate's senior advisers huddled to discuss strategy. Amazingly, despite the fact that many of Kerry's congressional colleagues had faced similar problems with bishops in recent years, no one had anticipated the problem. "It never crossed our minds that this could happen," recalled Christine Stanek, deputy to Kerry's campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill.
When Kerry and his advisers did reach a decision, it was underwhelming: ignore the story and hope it goes away. A few surrogates could defend Kerry in the press, but the campaign itself would maintain radio silence. It was the same strategy they would employ a few months later when the Swift Boat attacks began. The flaw in the approach, of course, was that ignoring the situation didn't mean the stories went away. It just ensured that the Kerry campaign forfeited any ability to influence the coverage. On one side of the rapidly accumulating media accounts was a handful of unusually conservative bishops whose presence suddenly loomed much larger when left unchallenged. On the other? "The Kerry campaign did not return calls for comment."