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Commentary: Why VP choice is crucial for values voters

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  • Tara Wall: Values voters include people of many backgrounds
  • Both candidates need to pay attention to values voters, Wall says
  • Wall: Obama could benefit from picking a VP with different social values
  • McCain's pick of a pro-choice VP would cause a revolt, she says
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By Tara Wall
CNN Contributor
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Editor's Note: Tara Wall, deputy editorial page editor and columnist for The Washington Times, serves as a political contributor to CNN. Before joining the newspaper, she was a senior advisor for the Republican National Committee and was appointed a public affairs director in the Department of Health and Human Services by President Bush. Read her columns here.

Tara Wall says the candidates shouldn't forget that values voters are still interested in social issues like abortion.

Washington (CNN) -- The term evangelical voter is often bandied about as a measure of voter attitudes to generally refer to people of faith in Christian denominations. But most often, these religious polls are only referring to white evangelicals.

Black and Hispanic evangelicals are almost never included in the analysis. That's ironic, because of all the racial and ethnic groups in the United States, black Americans are the most likely to report a religious affiliation, according to Pew Research.

Barack Obama, a man of faith, must know that this is among the reasons the senator has such wide appeal and an overwhelming lead in the black community.

John McCain recognizes it too, which is why he's tried hard to address the issue, as he did during last weekend's Saddleback Civic Forum on the Presidency.

He stated, unprompted, "When I go into places [like Gee Bend, Alabama] where I know they probably won't vote for me, I know that my job is to tell them that I'll be president of every American." It may be considered pandering by some observers, yet it is his way of acknowledging that minority voters of faith matter.

But among white evangelicals, the script is flipped. McCain leads Obama 68 percent to 24 percent, because despite Obama's born-again credentials, white conservatives are more suspect of his liberal, pro-choice, leanings.

Keeping these factors in mind, it should come as no surprise that we are seeing a push among the presidential candidates to appeal to religious voters. Obama cannot win with the black vote alone and McCain cannot afford to alienate any more of his conservative base. The faithful are politically engaged.

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But defining the faithful or religious is not an easy task. Perhaps the best term to use is values voters. It covers white, black, Hispanic and Asian Americans of varying faiths, who put a premium on values-driven policy. Admittedly, that moniker has come to mean something wholly different than it did in elections past.

In 2000 and 2004, for example, values voters referred to the increase in evangelical voters who were mostly considered the religious right. Today they have come to represent those who are less affiliated with a political party and vote based on a core set of issues or values (generally conservative), and range in race and age.

Now that the primaries are over there has been a shift by the presumptive nominees, from simply appealing to the party base to catering to the general population. In their quest to appeal to values voters, the two men who-would-be president would do well to consider the implications of their vice presidential picks.

While Obama could benefit from a socially opposite vice presidential nominee (such as pro-life Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine), the same cannot be said for John McCain in picking a pro-choice nominee (i.e Tom Ridge).

Despite his "proud 25-year pro-life record," conservatives take issue with McCain's vote to support federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, they've been skeptical since his past comments about people of faith (i.e. Jerry Falwell), and some are growing impatient with the Republican Party's move away from a faith-based platform.

Having been slightly redeemed by the faithful after his impressive performance at the Saddleback Civic Forum on the Presidency, McCain's pick of a pro-choice candidate would cause a revolt, the likes of which he cannot afford.

For Obama's part, the candidate seems oblivious to the fact that the majority of Americans are opposed to abortion, and even those who consider themselves pro-choice have a hard time wrapping themselves around the Illinois senator's extreme views and votes against a ban on partial-birth abortions and against the Born Alive Infant Protection Act.

Further, Obama lost points with his out-of-touch response to the most innocuous question on abortion posed by Pastor Rick Warren, "When does a baby have human rights," to which Obama replied that was above his pay grade. One other trend the Obama campaign may want to consider is that conservative Democrats are making a comeback, winning once-held Republican districts by running on moderate-to-right platforms.

One thing is certain, while today's values voters are more moderate on fiscal issues and have expanded their top issues to include the environment, the war and economics, they remain staunchly conservative on social issues. Or as Family Research Council President Tony Perkins put it to me: Life is still fundamental.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

All About ReligionJohn McCainBarack ObamaAbortion

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