mccain5.jpgJohn McCain’s campaign has begun quietly reaching out to conservative Christian activists, including onetime Mike Huckabee supporters, but those activists remain highly skeptical of the Arizona senator and his ability to rally the GOP’s evangelical base in November. “I was schmoozed a great deal, and he was a very nice guy and I asked pointed questions,” says Bob Burney, an influential Christian radio host in Columbus, Ohio who met with McCain’s liaison to the Christian Right last week. “But to be honest, it did not alleviate my concerns.”
“The last time [McCain] ran, he didn’t do anything to woo conservative evangelicals,” said Burney, a host at WRFD The Word, which reaches about 80 percent of Ohio. “Now, all of a sudden, he’s had a miraculous transformation and wants support from the evangelical community… I’m very dubious and honestly cannot decide whether I can vote for him or not.”
McCain’s effort to mend fences with the Christian Right is being led by Brett O’Donnell, the longtime coach of the championship debate team at Liberty University, of Jerry Falwell fame. O’Donnell didn’t respond to email messages for comment and the McCain campaign declined to provide a phone number for him.
According to the debate team homepage on Liberty University’s web site, O’Donnell has coached there and at Penn State for 14 years and served as an advisor to President George W. Bush for the 2004 presidential debates. The web page says O’Donnell is on temporary leave.
Besides WRFD’s Burney, O’Donnell also met last week with Chris Long, president of the Ohio Christian Alliance, formerly the Christian Coalition of Ohio. “There’s still a very cool feeling toward McCain with a lot of evangelicals and conservatives,” said Long. “The candor in the explanations was helpful, but it will just take some time to review the process. Certainly [McCain] is pro-life and has been conservative on some issues, but he’ll have to articulate what he plans to do.”
Burney and Long both cast ballots for Huckabee in yesterday’s Ohio primary. According to exit polls, Huckabee won 48-percent of Republican voters who identified as born again or evangelical, compared to 45-percent for McCain. Those voters made up 44-percent of the GOP electorate.
A handful of activists who’ve been contacted by McDonnell said his efforts represented McCain’s first concerted outreach to them since a team of high-profile religious conservatives were fired by the campaign last spring over what it called performance-related problems. “In the end, you came away with the strong sense that they had contempt for the faith-based community,” Marlene Elwell, one of those staffers, said at the time of several senior McCain aides. “The way we were being treated it was as if we had leprosy.”
Kansas Senator Sam Brownback has been helping McCain improve relations with the Christian Right since halting his own presidential bid last fall, but that effort has been focused largely on national leaders in the movement and on Catholics as opposed to evangelicals.
The evangelical activists who’ve been contacted by O’Donnell ticked off a well-worn list of complaints about McCain from religious conservatives, including his opposition to an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning gay marriage, his support for federally-funded embryonic stem cell research, his role in drafting federal campaign finance reform, and his participation in the so-called Gang of 14 agreement between Republican and Democratic senators in 2005 to avoid an historic change in Senate rules.
“I was quite impressed that they did call and reach out to social conservatives,” said Phil Burress, a prominent Ohio evangelical who leads a group associated with Focus on the Family and who met with a McCain liaison last week. Burress declined to name that person, activists familiar with the meeting identified him as O’Donnell. Burress said he told the McCain liaison, “You shouldn’t be talking to us now—you should be listening to us say what you need to do.”
“He’s got a shot at getting us riled up for him,” Burress said of McCain. “But if he thinks we’re going to get excited and work for him because the other two candidates [Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton] are so bad, that doesn’t work. We want to be proactive and not reactive.” Burress said he was personally prepared to vote for McCain and applauded McCain’s pro-life record and his leadership on combating obscenity in the broadcast media.
Two prominent evangelical activists in Texas said the conservative Christian outreach that McCain was doing in Ohio was absent in advance of the Lone Star State’s primary yesterday.
Michael Farris, a prominent evangelical activist in Virginia who’d supported Mike Huckabee, said McCain had turned down a meeting with him and other conservative Christian leaders last year. “There’s only one way for me to read that,” said Farris, who organized similar forums that met with George W. Bush and other Republican candidates during he 2000 presidential race.
“He has to stop saying he hates Christians who are involved in politics,” Farris continued, referring to McCain’s characterization of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson in 2000 as “agents of intolerance.” “As far as I’m concerned, that’s still on the table—he’s never taken it off.”
Several evangelical activists said McCain’s next big test with the movement arrives this Friday, when they say McCain is scheduled to speak at a meeting of the Council for National Policy, a coalition of powerful conservative activists. It was at the Council’s September meeting that a handful of Christian conservatives voiced support for a plan to back a third-party candidate in the event that Rudy Giuliani got the GOP nomination.
Other Republican presidential candidates have appeared at recent Council for National Policy meetings, but several members of the secretive group said this was McCain’s first appearance.


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