WASHINGTON -- With the Democratic presidential nomination in his grasp, Sen. Barack Obama is making a full-throttle push for centrist evangelicals and Catholics.
It's a move that's caught some conservative evangelicals off guard. They say they are surprised and dismayed to see a liberal-minded politician attempting to conscript their troops. At the same time, they say that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has done little to court their affections.
"I've never seen anything quite like it before," said evangelical author Stephen Mansfield, who wrote "The Faith of George W. Bush" and has a forthcoming book about Obama.
"To be running against a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, and to be reaching into the Christian community as wisely and knowledgeably as (Obama) is -- understanding their terms and their values -- is just remarkable."
This month, the Illinois senator held a closed-door meeting in Chicago with almost 40 Christian leaders, including evangelical heavyweights such as the Rev. Franklin Graham, publishing magnate Steve Strang and megachurch pastor Bishop T.D. Jakes.
Obama's campaign is also launching a grass-roots effort, tentatively called Joshua Generation, with plans to hold concerts and house meetings targeted at young evangelicals and Catholics.
A political action committee set to launch this month, the Matthew 25 Network, plans to direct radio advertising and mailers to Christian communities while talking up Obama in the media. The group is not officially tied to the Obama campaign.
Obama's emphasis on faith outreach plays to his strengths, campaign observers say. The senator is at ease speaking about religion and preaches a message of forging common ground with disparate communities.
Still, some religious leaders wonder whether Obama's Christian-focused outreach might alienate Jewish and Muslim voters, for example, not to mention the Democratic Party's large secular wing.
"You really have to consider the question: What message does this send to people of other faiths?" said the Rev. Romal J. Tune, a Washington pastor who works on religious outreach with the Democratic National Committee.
Joshua DuBois, Obama's director of faith outreach, said the campaign is "not solely focused" on evangelicals and Catholics but "committed to reaching people of faith broadly and trying to bridge religious divides."
Nonetheless, Obama has clearly learned a lesson from previous, unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidates: Ignore -- or dismiss -- evangelicals at your peril.