This all seems so eight years ago. A folksy Southern evangelical wins Iowa only to be stopped in his tracks by maverick John McCain. But will what happens next in the Republican presidential race be a replay of 2000? Will the Christian Right stop McCain cold in South Carolina? God-o-Meter doubts it.
Let’s examine the evidence: 1. As opposed to denouncing the Christian Right as “agents of intolerance,” as he did in 2000, McCain is enthusiastically reaching out the movement. The effort has been both rhetorical and organizational. Formerly reticent in speaking about his own religious faith and the influence of faith on politics, McCain told Beliefnet last fall that he is talking to his pastor about undergoing a full-immersion Baptism and that he prefers a president “who I know who has a solid grounding in my faith.” After Mike Huckabee came out with a Christmastime TV ad that some said featured cross imagery, McCain released an ad that discussed what the cross means to him.
Organizationally, McCain has sought the counsel of ex-presidential candidate Sam Brownback in beefing up evangelical-oriented support groups like Iowans of Faith for McCain and seeking meetings with evangelical political leaders.
2. McCain has launched a “truth squad” in South Carolina to smack down potentially ruinous attacks as they surface. Rumors spread by George W. Bush supporters about McCain in South Carolina–including that he had fathered an illegitimate child–hit him especially hard among “values voters.”
3. McCain got just as many evangelical votes in New Hampshire as Mike Huckabee. Each got 28-percent, with Mitt Romney snagging 27-percent. Aides to Huckabee’s Republican rivals note that while Huckabee had a full year to bond with Iowa evangelicals, he won’t have the same luxury in South Carolina or other early primary states.
Does this mean John McCain will have an easy time in the Palmetto State? No. But for McCain, what happens next won’t be a replay of 2000.