Democrats and Republicans are sparring to see how religion-friendly they can make their national conventions.

For the first time, an interfaith gathering will mark the official opening of the Democrats' convention week in late August. This year's Denver meeting will be the second time people of faith will have their own caucus. Evangelist and sociologist Tony Campolo, a member of the party's platform committee, said he will push for an abortion-reduction plank.

The convention's CEO, Leah Daughtry, is a Pentecostal pastor who flies from Denver to Washington, D.C., twice a month to preach in her church.

"There's a growing understanding that the faith community is important in elections, an acknowledgment that we need to be more proactive," said Daughtry, who is chief of staff for the Democratic National Committee. "What we're doing now is making our voices more strongly heard."

Steven Waldman, editor of the spirituality website Beliefnet, covered the 2000 and 2004 conventions. He expects Democratic religious outreach to be much more sophisticated than in previous years because of Sen. Barack Obama, who is outspoken about his Christian faith.

"Two conventions ago, [Democrats] had no sensitivity to religious people," Waldman said. "Last convention, they had a little bit. They had this kind of rump operation that was trying to reach out to religious people, but it was kind of poignant."

Whether the Republican convention will have the kind of evangelical-celebrity quotient it had in the past remains to be seen. At press time, the Republicans had yet to release official plans for the early September convention, but spokeswoman Yohana de la Torre said many faith-based organizations will be involved. Christian musicians Michael W. Smith and Third Day performed at the 2004 convention, and pastors Max Lucado and Greg Laurie offered opening and closing prayers.

Ralph Reed, former director of the Christian Coalition, said the Republican National Convention has historically been an important place for many conservative Christian groups to network within the party and make sure their issues are included in the party's platform. He doesn't believe the Democrats' outreach will work.

"Imitation is the highest form of flattery," Reed said. "But you don't win voters because you quote a verse; you win by having the same values."

Waldman wonders whether evangelicals will be represented on the podium and how that will shape Sen. John McCain's image.

"There's this conventional wisdom that McCain is unpopular among evangelicals. He's unpopular among evangelical leaders, but not necessarily among rank and file," Waldman said. "McCain is going to want to see this kind of concern among religious conservatives evaporate by then."

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