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God and Candidate I: It was hard not to miss the military symbolism in Senator John Kerry’s formal announcement of his candidacy for the presidency in front of the USS Yorktown at Mount Pleasant, S.C., Tuesday: kind of like being hit over the head with an aircraft carrier. What struck us about the event, though, were not the military accoutrements — those are a no-brainer when the candidate is a Navy veteran and war hero who commanded a patrol boat in Vietnam — but the frequent nods to faith.

Kerry began his speech by departing from the text and bidding one of his Vietnam-era crew members, an African-American South Carolinian, David Alston, who is now a minister, to give an invocation. Alston had been the gunner on the craft, sitting on a high perch in the boat, the senator related. Kerry marveled at the memory. “I did not know I had a man of God above, protecting me,” he said.

Kerry himself got into a ministerial cadence at the end of his speech, stressing how he “believed” in the American people. “I believe the courage of Americans can change this country,” he said. “I believe the idealism of Americans can match our power to our principles — so that this nation will advance the best hopes of the world. I believe the genius of Americans can make us energy independent.” In all, Kerry began sentences with “I believe” six times — even though the written text of the speech released by the campaign indicates only three such instances of what religious folks might call “professions to the congregation.”

What was all that “belief” about? Why, the votes of the most religious sector of Democratic Americans.

“It looks like he’s playing to the African-American community,” said a Washington Democratic strategist, Steve Rabinowitz. “The African-American community is up for grabs: Joe Lieberman has been doing better among them than anybody else. If Lieberman fails generally, the black vote is even more in play. Kerry’s main rival, Howard Dean, is nowhere in the African-American community. Kerry may see this as a major opportunity. He could be the guy in the ethnic base of the party.”

Kerry adviser Chris Lehane ducked the question of whether his principal was playing to African-American voters but said that the invocation “set the right tone… the right spirit” for the day. Kerry is not likely to reprise such prayers on the campaign trail, however, because “as we go forward, most events will not be as formal and solemn as this one was,” Lehane said.

Kerry, the spokesman said, is a Catholic who attends Mass once a week, but “not someone who wears his religion on his sleeve.”

“It’s a regular part of his life, but not something he’s going to talk about on an ongoing basis,” Lehane said. Given the intense media scrutiny on any candidate, he said, “if [religion is] an important part of your life, that will be conveyed to voters.”

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God and Candidate II: Dean, for his part, has embarked on a quasi-religious adventure of a different sort. His campaign is exhorting its followers to participate in what it is calling “September to Remember,” a month of activities dedicated to community-building and the sharing of Dean’s vision. The form of the activities, which stress individual action in stages, reminded some observers of religious rites centered on the calendar, such as the celebration of the Advent — the tradition of counting down the 25 days before the birth of Christ — or the activities of repentance in which Jews engage before the High Holy Days, during the Hebrew month of Elul, which happens to be now.

“‘September To Remember’ begins by asking people to join the various aspects of the campaign, from joining and then attending the Dean 2004 meet-ups on September 3, to joining the Dean wireless updates, and then, in the month’s middle 10 days, asks them to engage in various outreach activities like writing letters to their congressional representatives and speaking with their neighbors about why they support Dean,” the campaign wrote in a press release. “In the final 10 days of September, the campaign is asking its supporters to contribute to the campaign and to ask their friends to contribute as a way of demonstrating how hundreds of thousands of Americans can donate small amounts of money to help remove special interest money from politics.”

“We don’t expect everyone to do every action, but we’re asking that each of our 338,000 supporters complete one action from each of the categories,” campaign manager Joe Trippi explains in the release. Or as the sages say in the classic Jewish religious text “Ethics of the Fathers”: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, nor are you free to desist from it.”

Dean, it seems, has discovered the power that can be harnessed by secularizing religious behaviorism, and while his little month of activities cannot be said to be religion in the traditional sense, it has a rather religious “feel to it,” according to one rabbi.

“At a moment when politics offers little practical for people to do, and religion is not doing a great job of linking its particular practices to some wider human vision, he has recovered that nexus point between the two, [showing people]: Here’s how your little, particular actions can have cosmic or global impact,” said Brad Hirschfield, vice president of Clal: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

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God and Candidate III: The field’s Jewish candidate, for his part, appears to be staying away this month from religion in his politics. In an e-mail message sent Tuesday headed “Kicking off a Winning Season,” Lieberman uses a sports metaphor in thanking supporters. “Much like football, the political preseason is over and the regular season of presidential campaigning has begun,” he writes. “I can’t make it to the playoffs without my fans.” Religion was for last month — when, using the traditional Jewish symbolism of the number “18,” which is the numerical equivalent of chai, the Hebrew word for “life,” he asked Jewish supporters to find him 1,800 new contributors using the Internet. Did it work? Yes. “We’re living the ‘chai life’ now,” Lieberman spokesman Jano Cabrera said. “We met our goal and went a little over.”

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‘Nonpartisan’ California: The 133-candidate recall election in California is being used for a lot of things: revenge against an unpopular governor, fun for the sheer spectacle and media frenzy, profit for a bunch of under-employed Republican political consultants. How about as an argument against nonpartisan elections in New York City? The Empire State’s Democratic chairman, Assemblyman Herman “Denny” Farrell, told the Forward that the California recall is a prime example of how well-meaning electoral reforms can lead to deleterious “unintended consequences” — and that he would be using it as an argument against a proposed New York City charter reform calling for nonpartisan city elections that will be on the ballot this November. “We could have a situation here like in California, with multiple candidates — people who don’t know what they’re doing,” he said.

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Thrill With Bill: Got $5,000? You too can chow down with Bill Clinton. The former president is headlining an intimate fundraiser at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant at the Essex House in New York September 8, and that’s the price of a plate. The proceeds will benefit the New York State Democratic Committee, in part to help erase several hundred thousand dollars in debts racked up by the unsuccessful 2002 gubernatorial bid of former state comptroller H. Carl McCall. An adviser to Clinton and McCall, Harold Ickes, got Clinton’s commitment to appear at the event last year during the ill-fated campaign, a source said. Clinton will speak on “building the future of the Democratic Party.” Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow…

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