- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 6, 2008

Sen. John McCain is making surprising headway with religious conservatives - that part of the Republican electoral coalition he was expected to find the most resistant.

For a campaign that Republican critics have called ill-managed, disorganized and message-challenged, the Arizona senator’s organization has, from all outward appearances, been doing things right in its appeals to evangelicals and other religious conservatives.

In the past week, Mr. McCain won over a major group of social conservatives, thanks to personal appeals, and the campaign has made personnel moves appealing to religious voters.

In Denver last week, a meeting of nearly 100 religious conservative leaders and activists resulted in about 75 of them deciding Mr. McCain is their man. Some of those present told The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity that distrust of Sen. Barack Obama was a big part of their conversion to the McCain cause, though the Arizonan’s own persuasiveness on the values issues generally impressed them the most.

Mr. McCain, who had attacked evangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as “agents of intolerance” during his failed 2000 nomination bid, has reportedly met with hundreds of leading evangelicals in recent weeks and, by all accounts, turned them around by the force of his personality and personal credibility.

“We - I mean the values voters - said about a year ago that John McCain doesn’t like us and we don’t like him,” Ohio-based evangelical insider Phil Burress told The Times. “About the same time, we said McCain and [Rudolph W.] Giuliani were the two unacceptable Republican candidates.”

In the last week or so, however, Mr. Burress, along with other nationally recognized names in the values-voters movement, have changed their minds about Mr. McCain based “on hearing him in person, one on one. It made all the difference in the world.”

Mr. Burress said he, Eagle Forum President Phyllis Schlafly, former interior secretary and Christian Coalition leader Donald P. Hodel, WallBuilders founder David Barton, Liberty Council counsel Mathew Staver and others have been moved to work for the election of Mr. McCain.

He cited mostly their trust in several McCain promises - to make judicial appointments that will resemble that of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Antonin Scalia, to “get serious” on abortion and same-sex marriage, and to push values issues in general.

But Mr. Burress also said that social conservatives simply do not trust Mr. Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

“I sat down with [Mr. McCain] and was moved by him,” Mr. Burress said. “I see in Obama a con artist, and in McCain a real man. Once in office, he will not be pushed around by anyone or put his finger to the wind.”

Marlys Popma, director of evangelical outreach for Mr. McCain in Ohio, and consultant Frank Cannon, who also managed the 2000 Gary Bauer campaign, spent June 21 with Mr. Burress and Ohio pro-family leaders.

Mr. Burress and his colleagues then had been vocal critics of Mr. McCain. But Mrs. Popma and Mr. Cannon convinced them that the McCain campaign was truly listening to religious conservatives and wanted their help, a participant said.

“Then Mr. McCain met with them on June 25 and convinced them that he shared their values,” the participant said. “It was an effective one-two punch. I guess my point is that none of this happened by accident.”

Mr. McCain also profited from a meeting last weekend with evangelical icons the Rev. Billy Graham and his son, the Rev. Franklin Graham. Very few political analysts were predicting such a twist in a McCain campaign.

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