A year ago this month, when newspapers and magazines wrote that Leah Daughtry, the Democratic National Convention Committee's chief executive, also worked as a Pentecostal preacher, the prose crackled with surprise.

A year later, the party often viewed as mostly secular has made small gains among religious adults, a new survey shows. Meanwhile, Daughtry's triple role as preacher, party chief of staff and convention committee CEO no longer raises surprise but rather the question of whether her party's religious-friendly conversion will gain votes come November.

The Henry Institute National Survey on Religion and Public Life found that Democrats made gains among mainline Protestants, those like Presbyterians who are affiliated with

The DNCC CEO Leah D. Daughtry hosts a "Convention Conversations" forum with the Covention's senior management team at the downtown Tattered Cover Book Store on Tuesday, June 10, 2008. The community forums present a venue to ask questions, share ideas and find out how individuals can get involved in the 2008 Democratic National Convention. (Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post)
the National Council of Churches. Among those Christians, Republican identification shrank from 44 percent in 2004 to 37 this spring, while Democratic identification rose from 38 percent to 46 percent. The Henry Institute, at Calvin College in Michigan, studies the intersection of Christianity and public life.

Though both the Republicans and the Democrats lost 2 percentage points among evangelical Protestants in the survey, the Democrats were able to gain slightly among traditional and centrist evangelicals. A year ago, many evangelical Christians "never considered the Democratic Party because they thought it was the party of anti-God," said Bruce Ledewitz, a professor at Pittsburgh's Duquesne University School of Law and author of the book "American Religious Democracy."

"I think the party has done an amazing job of shifting the perception," Ledewitz said.

But predicting whether the perception change will influence the presidential election remains unclear, the scholar said.

"How many will vote for (Barack) Obama? Not too many, but I do think there will be tangible effects all the same, and ripple effects," he said.

Daughtry's first priority is planning the convention. But she has made time to reach out to voters of faith in the Intermountain West.

She has twice visited Mormon leaders in Salt Lake City. She has attended Shabbat services at Denver's Temple Emanuel and meetings with the Greater Denver Ministerial Alliance. She's spent several Sundays at the Campbell Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, led by Pastor Regina Groff, wife of state Senate President Peter Groff.

Last week, she met with a dozen Colorado religious leaders, including Islamic and Jewish leaders, Christian evangelists, Lutherans, Methodists and interfaith leaders.

Last month, Daughtry delivered a sermon at Campbell challenging the faithful to stand up to the flames of adversity, playing off the imagery of the Old Testament's story about Shadrach, Meshach

and Abednego. In the biblical account, the three men were thrown into a furnace because they refused to commit idolatry, but God saved them to honor their faith.

"I wish I had three people who understood what it means to get the victory over what the enemy has laid in your path," Daughtry said, slapping the pulpit, almost shouting. "You've already come out of the fire!"

Daughtry's message is religious, but she acknowledges she preaches from a tradition that takes on political themes and offers critique of contemporary life.

That tradition was also taken to extreme by the fiery sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, which continue to hang over Obama's chances. Obama resigned from his church amid controversies including Wright's continued denunciations of America as a racist government that planted AIDS in the black community.

And Daughtry's party still has all the old problems with conservative Christians when it comes to its positions on abortion, gays and other social issues.

Daughtry says the evangelical movement is changing.

"You see their list of concerns growing to include issues like Darfur, issues like the environment," Daughtry said. "I think as those issues become part of their conversation, then I think it's a natural fit for them to look to the Democratic Party. . . .

"I think we have more in common with them, particularly on social issues, than the Republican Party does," she said.

But a spokesman for John McCain, Obama's presumptive GOP rival, said Obama's own comments may prevent moderate religious Republicans from defecting.

"People of faith, regardless of political affiliation, were shocked by Barack Obama's out-of-touch comment equating faith and affinity toward religious organizations as coming from some sort of bitterness," the spokesman, Jeff Sadosky, said. "We have seen out on the road a sense of shock at those comments."

McCain also has had issues with religious leaders and had to reject the support of the Rev. John C. Hagee after recordings surfaced of Hagee arguing that God used Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust to drive Jews to the Holy Land.

Meanwhile, Daughtry's efforts and those of the party's faith-in-action team have been mirrored by Obama's campaign.

And it's possible that the beating Obama has taken over Wright may resonate with some evangelicals who feel they have been persecuted for their beliefs, Ledewitz said, adding that the controversy also seems to have set to rest rumors that Obama was a Muslim.

Last week, Obama met in Chicago with about 30 evangelicals, including several fundamentalists. Details of the meeting weren't released, but the symbolism could be helpful to him.

"He's trying to say to the very conservative elements of the Christian establishment that, 'Look, I'm not so scary,' " said Sarah Posner, author of "God's Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters."

Posner says the party's efforts are targeted at moderate evangelicals. Daughtry hasn't met yet with conservative leaders like Focus on the Family founder James Dobson.

Ledewitz argues that trying to reach out to Dobson would be a waste of time, given the fundamentalist's firm positions. "That would be like saying that the Democrats should meet with the leadership of the National Rifle Association."

Reaching out to the middle makes far more sense. Given the calculus of electoral votes, Posner said, "If (Daughtry's) efforts and Obama's efforts make a difference at the margins in Ohio and Missouri and states like Arkansas, that could change the election. The fact that you could tip a small segment of a very important voting bloc in Obama's favor, it could be very significant."

Chuck Plunkett:[masked] or [address removed]