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mccain11.jpgJohn McCain faces a big test with his party’s activist base today when he makes his first appearance before the Council for National Policy, a coalition of hundreds of conservative activists that includes such prominent names as Focus on the Family’s James Dobson. It was at a Council for National Policy meeting last fall that Dobson and others voiced support for a plan to back a third-party candidate for president should Rudy Giuliani have gotten the Republican nomination.
McCain’s liaison to the conservative Christian world, longtime Liberty University debate coach Brett O’Donnell, says McCain’s speech before the CNP will emphasize the Senator’s vision for reigning in “taxes and spending, winning the war against radical Islam, judges, and the life issue.”
“There are all things he discusses everywhere,” O’Donnell said in a phone interview on Thursday, as he waited to board a plane to New Orleans, site of today’s CNP powwow. “We’re not delivering any special message at this meeting. It will be the same message that has been delivered to many audiences.”
Many CNP activists, meanwhile, will be looking for signs that the maverick with whom they have long had tense relations takes their support seriously. “I want to see some evidence that John McCain has changed,” says Patrick Henry College chancellor Michael Farris, who has attended past Council for National Policy meetings. “He has made it pretty clear in the past and even in this cycle that when Christian leaders want to meet with him and hear his views, he won’t come. There’s only one way for me to read that.”
“I need to see that he’s pro-life,” Farris continued. “Somebody that doesn’t support the Human Life Amendment is not really pro-life because the net result is that you think it should be up to states whether or not babies are killed. Somebody who believes in the sanctity of human life believes that babies everywhere should be protected.”
McCain’s campaign web site says he supports overturning Roe v. Wade and notes that such a decision from the Supreme Court would return the issue of abortion to the states. The site doesn’t mention the Human Life Amendment.
Kelly Shackelford, a Texas-based evangelical activist who leads a group associated with Focus on the Family, said he was planning on supporting McCain but that the Senator would have to emphasize so-called values issues if he expected grassroots social conservatives to promote his candidacy. “If Huckabee was in the race, those values issues would be presented and the contrast between the Democrats would be laid out,” Shackelford said. “Will McCain push those issues? Nobody knows for sure if he will. In Texas, all the political leaders—the governor and senators—endorsed McCain, but every single pro-family grassroots leader endorsed Huckabee. There was a huge divide.”
The McCain camp’s O’Donnell, whose official title is Director of Messaging, says much of the skepticism among conservative Christian activists is due to lack of understanding. “There are a lot of misperceptions on his stands on the issues—a lot of folks aren’t even familiar with his life record, and it’s a 25-year pro-life record,” O’Donnell said. “He has promised to appoint strict constructionist that won’t legislate from the bench. And the issue for everybody is the war against Islamic extremism.”
“Lots of the concern that folks have are concerns not about the issues but based on personality, and once they’ve had a chance to talk with [McCain] and listen to him, he has a great amount of success. We’ve been putting together what we call ‘family issue leaders’ for McCain in every early voting state, from pastors to priests to crisis pregnancy leaders to pro-life leaders. We’ve had a good amount of success.”
Asked if the campaign has made contact with Focus on the Family’s Dobson, who issued a scathing statement last month about why he won’t support McCain, O’Donnell said no. But O’Donnell also said that the campaign would welcome communication from Dobson. “The Senator has always believed in the principle of redemption and rapprochement. That’s is what happened between him and Dr. [Jerry] Falwell—Dr. Falwell went to him and said, ‘We need to put our differences aside’ and the Senator was very proud of that.”
“So I can’t imagine if Dr. Dobson said, ‘I want to meet with you and I want to work out our differences,” that the Senator would not be open to that,” O’Donnell said. “I’m very hopeful that we’ll have great support from those who listen to Dr. Dobson.”
A spokesman for Focus on the Family, Gary Schneeberger, declined to comment, other than to say, “Thank you for passing this information along.”


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