- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2000

John McCain's rebuke Monday of Christian conservatives whom he compared to Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton is already hurting him in the key primary state of New York.

John Zogby, a Utica, N.Y.-based pollster without ties to any presidential candidate, said Mr. McCain's 16-point lead over Mr. Bush among Roman Catholic voters as recently as last Saturday has been eliminated. Roman Catholics make up about 45 percent of the state's GOP primary electorate.

"We actually have Bush pulling ahead among Catholics by a few points enough to make it a trend still a statistical dead heat but a tremendous turnaround among Catholics," Mr. Zogby said.

Religious leaders and Christian conservatives throughout the country said yesterday that Mr. McCain's rebuke will have serious consequences some of which are already beginning to appear.

"The backlash already is beginning," said Deal Hudson, editor and publisher of Crisis, a magazine of politics, culture and the Catholic Church.

"McCain has made himself a demagogue in implying Bush associated with anti-Catholic bias. He is creating a division among traditional allies, including religiously active Catholics and evangelical Christians," Mr. Hudson told The Washington Times.

In Virginia where Mr. Bush trounced Mr. McCain in yesterday's primary churchgoers rejected Mr. McCain and his attack on the Christian Coalition when they went to the polls.

Many voters, particularly in the Virginia Beach and Chesapeake areas, known as the heart of Christian Coalition territory, said they cast their votes for Mr. McCain's rivals including Alan Keyes to show their disappointment with Mr. McCain's remarks.

"The man is an idiot," said Bruce Macdonald, a Chesapeake resident who voted for Mr. Keyes.

"You've got to wonder if he meant what he said. He went from someone people weren't really sure about to someone people can't trust," added Mr. Macdonald, who is a member of the New Life Christian Fellowship.

Bill Miles, executive director of the Virginia Christian Coalition, said yesterday Mr. McCain's remarks angered many voters who believed the senator "went out of his way to be nasty."

"A lot of the voters are ticked off," said Mr. Miles, who visited several polling places in Virginia Beach. "Many of them believe his remarks were unnecessary and mean-spirited. That will definitely show in the numbers particularly in Pat [Robertson's] home court."

Even Mr. McCain's biggest campaign asset when it comes to religious conservatives, former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, yesterday criticized Mr. McCain over his comments the previous day.

The Arizona senator had traveled to Virginia Beach to deride the Revs. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as "agents of intolerance" and compared them to the intolerant leader of the Nation of Islam and the radical Harlem minister.

"I disagree strongly with the comparison the senator made of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell to Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton," Mr. Bauer told The Times yesterday.

A social conservative who dropped out of the Republican nomination contest and then endorsed Mr. McCain before the Feb. 22 South Carolina primary, Mr. Bauer lamented the "three weeks of charge and counter-charge between the Bush and McCain camps."

"The only one celebrating is Al Gore," Mr. Bauer said. "The campaigns have taken on such a tone that we are in danger of inflicting on the American people four more years of what we have gone through under the Clinton-Gore administration."

Mr. Bush has been under fire in the press since he appeared at Bob Jones University in South Carolina, a school that bans interracial dating. Bob Jones III, the university's president, also has an essay on the school's World Wide Web site that describes Roman Catholicism and Mormonism as "cults which call themselves Christian."

Mr. McCain has used telephone banks to call voters with a "Catholic voter alert" in which the caller criticizes Mr. Bush for failing to repudiate the university. The call also implies that Mr. Bush's silence is evidence he harbors a hidden "anti-Catholic bigotry."

Mr. McCain defended his criticisms of Mr. Bush in remarks in Stockton, Calif., yesterday, saying Mr. Bush's failure to condemn the university is "a fair issue for me to raise."

Mr. Bush sent an apology to U.S. Catholic prelate Cardinal John O'Connor in which he said he regretted not using the opportunity to speak out against Bob Jones University. He repeated his regrets yesterday, telling Catholic Charities workers at a campaign stop in Cleveland: "My regret is that I didn't speak out against anti-Catholic bias when I had the opportunity to do so. I had the mike."

Mr. Bush, seated next to a Catholic priest as the television cameras recorded his Cleveland event, also used the occasion to accuse Mr. McCain of "demonizing people, holding people up for scorn."

Even members of Mr. McCain's own staff have criticized the rebuke. The co-chairman of Mr. McCain's presidential campaign resigned on Monday, saying he wants no part of the attacks on Bob Jones University, a school accused of religious bigotry.

"They're growing into a national media vendetta that I cannot associate my name to," state House Speaker Pro Tem Terry Haskins, a Bob Jones alumnus, said yesterday.

The religious vote looms large in the November election, according to Steve Wagner, president of QEZ Analytics, a polling firm that has done extensive studies of religious voters,

In 1960, two out of three active Catholics called themselves Democrats and 47 percent of evangelical conservatives were Democrats. But by last year, Mr. Wagner said, only 37 percent of active Catholics were still Democrats down 29 percentage points. And 23 percent of evangelical conservatives were Democrats.

Mr. Wagner worries that Mr. McCain's rebuke may hurt not only himself, but the Republican Party.

"That trend toward the Republican Party may be stopped by what McCain has started," he said.

Ellen Sorokin contributed to this report.

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