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Evangelicals on McCain: ‘in a holding pattern’ *

by Brad A. Greenberg

June 9, 2008 | 10:28 am

I mentioned last month that John McCain’s trump card for socially conservative Christians would be his well-established opposition to abortion. But that just doesn’t rally the troops like it used to.

In 2004, to stoke turnout among conservatives, Karl Rove engineered the addition of anti-gay-marriage voter initiatives to the ballots in Ohio and other states; last week, though, when the California Supreme Court voted to allow gay marriage in that state, only hard-core activists were able to muster much outrage. When it comes to the Constitution, McCain is on the wrong side of the voters, and of history

Save for California, I don’t know any states that will be voting on gay marriage in November. That could make it even harder for McCain to win over those evangelical Christians the NYT reports remain wary of the presumptive Republican nominee:

 

Lori Viars, an evangelical activist in Warren County, Ohio, essentially put her life on hold in the fall of 2004 to run a phone bank for President Bush. Her efforts helped the president’s ambitious push to turn out evangelicals and win that critical swing state in a close election.

But Ms. Viars, who is among a cluster of socially conservative activists in Ohio being courted by Senator John McCain’s campaign through regular e-mail messages, is taking a wait-and-see attitude for now toward Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee.

“I think a lot of us are in a holding pattern,” said Ms. Viars, who added that she wanted to see whom Mr. McCain picked for his running mate.

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The campaign has been peppering over 600 socially conservative grass-roots and national leaders with regular e-mail messages — highlighting, for example, Mr. McCain’s statement criticizing a May 15 decision by the California Supreme Court overturning the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, or his recent speech on his judicial philosophy. It has also held briefings for small groups of conservative leaders before key speeches. Charlie Black, one of Mr. McCain’s senior advisers, recently sat down with a dozen prominent evangelical leaders in Washington, where he emphasized, among other things, Mr. McCain’s consistent anti-abortion voting record.

Mr. McCain’s outreach to Christian conservatives has been a quiet courting, reflecting a balancing act: his election hopes rely on drawing in the political middle and Democrats who might be turned off should he woo the religious right too heavily by, for instance, highlighting his anti-abortion position more on the campaign trail.

“If McCain tried Bush’s strategy of just mobilizing the base, he would almost certainly fall short,” said John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “Because the Republican brand name is less popular and the conservative base is restive, McCain has special needs to reach out to independent and moderate voters, but, of course, he can’t completely neglect the evangelical and conservative base.”

The instrumental role of evangelicals in Mr. Bush’s victory in 2004 over Senator John Kerry is an oft-repeated tale at this point. Mr. Bush’s openness about his personal faith and stances on social issues earned him a following among evangelicals, who represented about a quarter of the electorate in 2004. Exit polls in the 2004 election found that 78 percent of white “born again” or evangelical Protestants had voted for Mr. Bush.

In contrast, Mr. McCain’s relationship with evangelicals has long been troubled. In 2000, when he was running against Mr. Bush for the Republican nomination, Mr. McCain castigated Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell as “agents of intolerance.”

In a sign of the lingering distrust, Mr. McCain finished last out of nine Republican candidates in a straw poll last year at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, a gathering for socially conservative activists.

James C. Dobson, the influential founder of the evangelical group Focus on the Family, released a statement in February, when Mr. McCain was on the verge of securing the Republican nomination, affirming that he would not vote for Mr. McCain and would instead stay home if he became the nominee. Dr. Dobson later softened his stance and said he would vote but has remained critical of Mr. McCain.

“For John McCain to be competitive, he has to connect with the base to the point that they’re intense enough that they’re contagious,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. “Right now they’re not even coughing.”

We’ve heard about a million times how important socially conservative Christians—often overgeneralized as evangelicals—were to transforming Gov. Bush to President Bush. Maybe the machine that Falwell and Robertson and Dobson made is wearing out, but can a Republican actually attain the presidency without their backing?

* Update: The Plank pointed out another good nugget that I missed:

Unlike Mr. Bush, Mr. McCain is decidedly reticent about religion on the stump. Mr. McCain grew up Episcopalian and shifted to a Baptist church after marrying his second wife, Cindy, but has not been baptized into the denomination. When asked about his personal faith at town hall forums, he often relates a familiar story. When Mr. McCain was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, a guard who had once loosened his bonds while he was being tortured sidled up to him on Christmas Day and drew a cross on the dirt in front of them. But some evangelical leaders say the account sheds more light on the guard’s faith than on Mr. McCain’s.

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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