mccain4.jpgEven as Super Tuesday saw John McCain continue to win more primary battles than his Republican rivals, there is mounting evidence that he’s losing the war with the evangelical base of his own party, raising questions about the Arizona senator’s ability to compete with the Democratic nominee in November.
“The challenge for John McCain will be tremendous if he’s the nominee,” Family Research Council president Tony Perkins said as primary returns trickled in on Tuesday night. For McCain to rally the evangelical activists crucial to George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign, Perkins said, “We’ll have to see a side of John McCain that we have not seen—that he clearly understands and supports issues at the center of the social conservative agenda.”
As he racked up victories in big states like California, New York, New Jersey and Missouri on Tuesday, McCain nonetheless struggled to win religious conservatives. Even in many states he won, McCain took less than half the votes of self-identified conservatives and pro-lifers. In some states, McCain lost those voters outright to Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney. And in evangelical-heavy Southern states like Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee—the traditional bedrock of the Republican Party—Mike Huckabee pulled off surprisingly decisive victories over McCain.
Complicating that picture for McCain is that many high-profile evangelical organizers who might help change minds about him are skeptical about his chances in November. “When it’s time to vote, if it’s between McCain and a Democrat [evangelicals] will vote for McCain,” said David Barton, a Texas-based Christian activist who directed evangelical pastor outreach for the Republican National Committee during the 2004 election. “But they won’t work for McCain. They’re not going to fall on their swords for him.”
“As close as recent presidential races have been,” Barton continued, “…. I find it difficult to believe that anyone can win without the help of what has been between 35 and 40-percent of the Republican base.”
Barton isn’t the only evangelical veteran of Bush’s 2004 reelection effort who doubts McCain’s ability to enlist the tens of thousands of conservative Christian volunteers that Bush did. Asked whether she’d work to win votes for McCain, Pam Olsen, Bush’s 2004 social conservative chairman for Florida, said, “No, probably not… it would be very difficult for me to do that.”
“I would have to hear the word from God of what to do or not to do,” Olsen said. “McCain is way too liberal and has done things over the years that have not been good, especially to Christian conservatives.”
McCain has angered the Christian Right by denouncing movement leaders as “agents of intolerance” in his 2000 presidential race, coauthoring the landmark McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill—which restricts advocacy groups’ ability to advertise during elections—and by opposing an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to ban gay marriage. In recent months, onetime presidential candidate Sam Brownback, greatly admired in conservative Christian circles, has helped McCain mend fences with the evangelical movement.
But a handful of evangelical political activists said that McCain’s evangelical offensive has gotten him only so far. “It’s not just outreach that’s important—it comes down to policy positions,” says the Family Research Council’s Perkins, one of the conservative Christian leaders who McCain has courted. “On an issue like embryonic stem cell research, it should be easy for him to hold the Bush line.”
Despite recent reports that McCain was reexamining his support for federally funded embryonic stem cell research, largely because of pressure from Brownback, he has not announced a change in his position.
“He can say that he understands the family is important and under attack, that he’d appoint a family czar in his administration, that he’d work to get Planned Parenthood off the public dole,” Perkins said, ticking off other ways for McCain to pick up support from evangelical advocacy groups. “There are things he can do to connect with [evangelicals] but it’s going to be very difficult.”
On Tuesday, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson released a statement reaffirming his opposition to McCain, saying he “cannot, and will not, vote for Sen. John McCain, as a matter of conscience… Should Sen. McCain capture the nomination… I believe this general election will offer the worst choices for president in my lifetime.”
Perkins and other evangelical activists said McCain could increase evangelical backing by selecting a strong social conservative like Mike Huckabee as a running mate or by bringing more Christian conservatives into his campaign operation.
But the evangelical activist set remains skeptical. “We may have a nominee who wins the nomination while losing the conservative and evangelical votes, which hasn’t happened since Gerald Ford beat Ronald Reagan in ’76,” said Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition director who directed evangelical outreach for Bush’s 2004 reelection effort. “In that respect, we’re in uncharted waters.”


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