Launching a new “Catholics for McCain” group and rolling out new leadership for his “Iowans of Faith for McCain” group last week, broadcasting a television ad about bonding with a prison guard over a cross as a POW, and airing recent ads on Iowa Christian radio, the presidential candidate who famously denounced the Christian Right’s leaders as “agents of intolerance” in his 2000 White House bid is making an 11th-hour appeal for the movement’s support.
Perhaps more than anyone, the person responsible for John McCain’s turnabout is Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, the evangelical-turned-Catholic religious conservative who endorsed McCain shortly after ending his own presidential campaign in October. In recent weeks, Brownback and advisors from his defunct campaign have counseled McCain and his aides about stepping up conservative Christian outreach and have arranged meetings between the campaign and evangelical Christian leaders.
“They are redoubling their efforts,” Brownback said of the McCain camp’s religious outreach effort in an interview on Saturday. “For quite a while, they just didn’t think it was their best zone of opportunity, and then we pushed them a lot and they’ve seen that McCain has a message that resonates in that community.”
“I don’t think they’d been very aggressive on reaching out the faith community… or showing respect for faith and issues of faith,” Brownback added about McCain and his team. “More than anything, he had to show respect for authentic faith, and you’re seeing that now in his language.”
Though McCain has been banking his campaign on a strong finish in New Hampshire, an uptick in support from evangelicals and other religious conservatives could improve his fortunes in early states like Iowa and South Carolina.
Brownback said his own efforts on McCain’s behalf include talking up his candidacy in a conversation with Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, an influential evangelical who has said he won’t support McCain because of the Senator’s opposition to a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage. Brownback also urged McCain to attend a recent meeting with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian advocacy group in Washington, DC.
“He does have a strong record on the life issue and I think I still see him as a very viable candidate who’s making a comeback, working aggressively, and has staked out the right position on the new Iraq surge policy,” Perkins, who had previously been critical of McCain, told Beliefnet this month after meeting with the Arizona Senator. “So if you’re a ‘security voter’ concerned with radical Islam, you have more than just the choice of Rudy Giuliani, with all his baggage on social issues.”
Of the roughly 50 activists comprising the new leadership of the Iowans of Faith for McCain group, nearly half are former Brownback backers. Brownback said the McCain campaign is preparing to announce an endorsement from an influential religious figure this week.
McCain’s 2000 “agents of intolerance” remarks about Moral Majority co-founder Jerry Falwell and then-Christian Broadcasting Network chief Pat Robertson and the Senator’s opposition to amending the constitution to ban gay marriage aren’t the only reasons he’s been a thorn in the side of the Christian Right. The movement’s leaders have also decried the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which placed limits on the organizations those leaders operate. They also bristled at McCain’s participation in the “Gang of 14” senators that struck a 2005 deal over President George W. Bush’s judicial appointments that wound up averting a dramatic change in Senate rules. Branded “the nuclear option,” conservatives had pushed the rules change to ensure that President Bush’s judicial nominees received Senate floor votes.
“This has been rocky road for John, but there’s been some regrets and some maturing on both sides,” Brownback said. While Christian Right leaders “have been unhappy about him in the past…. they warm up to him when they start to look at the other candidates and check him against the others. They say, ‘I’ve been mad at John in the past but he’s our best candidate.’”
Brownback said his chief arguments for McCain among social conservatives are his strong anti-abortion rights record in the Senate, his electability—ensuring more conservative appointments to the Supreme Court—his foreign policy experience, and his support for the Iraq war. “There has been resistance to John,” Brownback said. “But now it’s time to decide and stick with it.”
The McCain campaign did not respond to requests for comment about its stepped-up religious outreach effort.