- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2006

John McCain will trade superlatives with the man he once called an “agent of intolerance” when he delivers the commencement address Saturday morning at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.

“Senator McCain spent some of his career burning bridges,” McCain strategist John Weaver says. “All of us have learned from that, and he is very much in the process of building bridges now.”

Mr. Falwell, in a similar bridge-building mode, says Mr. McCain “is not very far from a position where religious conservatives could support him” on banning same-sex “marriage” and other moral issues.

In 2000, on the way to losing what for a time looked like a close presidential primary, the angry and frustrated Arizona senator hurled the accusation of intolerance at the nation’s most famous fundamentalist Baptist minister, who was backing George W. Bush.

Mr. McCain thought the Bush campaign, with the connivance of some religious conservatives, was conducting a whispering campaign of lies about him among evangelical voters. But his public attack on Mr. Falwell — and on broadcaster the Rev. Pat Robertson — only helped coalesce the religious right around Mr. Bush.

Mr. Falwell says he offered the olive branch in September to the once — and possibly future — Republican presidential candidate. Making it clear that to forgive is not necessarily to forget, he says, “Since I had good hearing, I did know what he said six years ago.”

As a result of the conversation, the senator agreed to deliver the commencement address this weekend at the university that Mr. Falwell founded in Lynchburg, Va.

“I asked him because he is a great American,” says Mr. Falwell, a founder of the pro-family, pro-national defense and pro-Israel Moral Majority.

Being a great American in Republican circles these days means being a great budgetary belt-tightener.

“If John runs, it will be to head a party and not just a cause, and that cause aims at reform and getting this party back to conservative principles on spending,” Mr. Weaver says.

Making up now benefits both men, possibly earning for Mr. Falwell a seat at the table of a McCain presidency and for Mr. McCain a degree of acceptance among some evangelical voters.

“Since I am Christian, reconciliation is a lifestyle,” Mr. Falwell says. “And since the senator is a great politician, reconciliation is also important. So we guaranteed success the moment we sat down together.”

He acknowledges that polls show Mr. McCain and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a social liberal, as the only two Republicans able to beat Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York or John Kerry of Massachusetts if the general election were held now.

But Mr. Falwell also likes the two men that many state Republican chairmen think are the top alternatives to Mr. McCain — Virginia Sen. George Allen and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

“I only invited Senator McCain to speak for our commencement,” he said. “I did not endorse him, and he did not ask me to.”

The new and improved McCain “Straight Talk Express” is preparing for another Republican nomination free-for-all in 2008 by making amends with Mr. Falwell and the religious right — and by building partywide support starting at the grass roots.

At a national meeting of Republican state chairmen last weekend in Colorado Springs, Mr. McCain had far more paid operatives and activist supporters present than did other possible 2008 contenders.

Working the Colorado meeting for Mr. McCain were:

• Mr. Weaver, who heads the senator’s Straight Talk America political action committee and ran his 2000 nomination campaign.

• Terry Nelson, widely respected in political circles as national political director for the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign.

• Mike Dennehy, the McCain adviser in New Hampshire, where the senator pulled an upset primary-election victory over Mr. Bush in 2000.

• John Yob, son of Republican National Committeeman Chuck Yob of Michigan, who ran as the religious conservatives’ candidate for Republican national chairman in 1997, losing to Jim Nicholson, a Catholic.

The elder Mr. Yob, who was at the weekend meeting, praised Mr. McCain but stopped short of endorsing him.

“You look at the polls, and Giuliani is second, but he is not going to get the nomination,” Mr. Yob says. “I’m looking to see who can beat Hillary, and it’s McCain.”

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