This time it may be the Democrats who are getting religion.
Former Sen. John Edwards invoked "My Lord" when asked about moral influences on his life in the first Democratic presidential debate. At a campaign event on the day of the Virginia Tech massacre, he offered a prayer and in a pointed break from Democratic candidates' usual wariness of offending religious minorities closed with the words "in Christ's name."
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. comfortably works in references to his faith at public appearances. Even before his presidential candidacy, he gave a well-received speech arguing for a greater role for religion in politics and cultivated relationships with influential church leaders, including mega-church pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., included a paragraph about faith in the official biography on her campaign Web site. And in her Senate re-election campaign last year, she drew notice in the New York press for wearing a cross at some public events.
Reversing recent political history, it's the leading Republican candidates who for various reasons have so far been reluctant to speak too much about matters of faith.
"Give the advantage to the Democrats at this point," said Rich Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals. "You would have to conclude that the Democrats have a lot more interest in faith than the Republicans based on what they've had to say."
Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a twice-divorced Catholic, holds liberal views on abortion and gay rights. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a divorced Episcopalian, has a tense relationship with leaders of the Religious Right. And former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is a devout Mormon whose religion arouses suspicion among many evangelicals.
Indeed, Obama and Clinton both have full-time staffers and Edwards an aide working part-time to reach out to religious leaders for political support. The Democrats' 2004 presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., did not start a religious outreach operation until the general election was well under way and did not give a speech on faith until nine days before the election.
"It's almost a 180-degree difference from the Kerry campaign," said Mara Vanderslice, who was director of religious outreach for Kerry and now works as a consultant to Democratic candidates on engaging religious voters. She is not currently working for a presidential campaign, she said.
The focus on faith reflects political realities. Many Democratic political professionals believe the party's candidates need to do a better a job of showing a clear moral vision and connecting with religious voters.
Party leaders were alarmed by the 2004 election returns. The Democrats narrowly lost the presidential election and one big reason was massive support for Republicans among the large portion of voters who regularly attend religious services. In a close election, even a slight gain in support from such a sizable group could swing the outcome.
A series of internal polls conducted by the Democratic National Committee during the following year concluded that about half the electorate places as much or more weight on their own religious faith as they do on conventional issues in casting their votes. The same polling suggested that many of those "faith voters" were not primarily motivated by such hot-button social issues as abortion or gay marriage but primarily were looking for a clear moral vision from candidates.
Since then, Democratic candidates who have made it a priority to engage voters on issues of faith have done well in some high-visibility competitive races. In 2005, Virginia Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine, a former Catholic lay missionary, won despite heavy criticism from his opponent for opposing the death penalty, which is popular in Virginia. Kaine explained his position as a matter of religious conviction.
"I think, generically speaking, Democrats were reluctant to speak about their faith," said former Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich., now Edwards' campaign manager. "There was a feeling that the separation (between church and state) should be such that you really shouldn't even talk about it. I think we went too far."
Expressions of faith can be more politically tricky for Democrats than Republicans because their party includes more secular voters and more members of religious minorities, such as Jews and Muslims.
In last year's midterm elections, Democrats in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan won competitive elections and did well among churchgoers after waging early and concerted efforts to attract religious voters.
Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, an abortion rights supporter and an ordained minister, virtually tied his Republican opponent among white evangelicals. Strickland advertised early on Christian radio, met often during his campaign with faith leaders and used phone banks staffed by Catholic nuns and religious volunteers to explain his positions to swing religious voters.
While social conservatives may be firmly anchored in the Republican Party, there are also signs that religious Americans more broadly are growing increasingly interested in issues that favor Democrats.
Catholic congregations are increasingly discontented with the war in Iraq, which the church's hierarchy has vigorously opposed from the start.
At the same time, many prominent evangelical leaders have sought to broaden the movement's public policy agenda beyond such traditional cultural issues as abortion, gay rights and prayer in the schools, which tend to favor Republicans. Evangelicals are showing interest in AIDS in Africa, the genocide in Darfur and "creation care," their preferred term for environmental protection.
All three of the leading Democratic candidates are scheduled to appear next month at a forum on faith and values sponsored by Sojourners/Call to Renewal, a liberal evangelical group that concentrates on anti-poverty issues. Religious leaders will question the candidates on their moral beliefs and how they shape their public policy views, said Rev. Jim Wallis , the group's president.
Some Democratic political leaders, meanwhile, have sought to adjust their rhetoric on abortion to tamp down hostility toward the party's abortion-rights position.
Many Democratic candidates in recent years have altered the way they speak about their pro-abortion rights stands, stressing their respect for the positions of those who are morally opposed. Clinton called abortion a "sad, even tragic choice" in a 2005 speech, stirring criticism from abortion rights groups. And a number of Democratic lawmakers have gathered behind legislative proposals explicitly aimed at reducing the number of abortions, through aid for contraception and assistance to expectant mothers.
Still, last month's Supreme Court decision upholding a ban on a procedure called "partial-birth" abortion by opponents may stir passions on both sides of the abortion controversy.
"We're very likely to see some increased activism," said John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Politics. "How it plays out is just so hard to tell right now."
Whatever direction the battles over abortion may take, the leading Democratic presidential candidates appear committed to a more visible role for faith in their campaigns. Obama, for one, argues that the party can only win popular support for progressive goals if it makes the case in the moral terms that religion offers.
And Wallis argues that it is entirely appropriate to look beyond candidates' views on the issues of the moment toward their moral core in order to gain insight in how they might respond to the unanticipated challenges they are sure to face as elected office-holders.
"It's fair for any citizen to evaluate a candidate by their moral compass," Wallis said. "Politics should be about values. That's the right conversation. Your moral compass shapes your values and, for some people, that's their faith."