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.

Conservative doubters of Mr. McCain, following the traditional mantra “people are policy” and thinking that Mr. McCain’s presidential intentions are best measured by the people with whom he surrounds himself now, also have seen good things from their point of view.

He has sent Pam Pryor, an evangelical and an experienced Capitol Hill aide, over to the Republican National Committee to be a senior adviser to Deputy National Republican Committee Chairman Frank Donatelli.

“This is the signal to many evangelical leaders that the McCain team is sincerely planning to reach out to its Republican base,” presidential historian Doug Wead wrote on his Web site. “After Carter, Reagan and Bush, they grew skeptical of religious testimony and promises of legislation. They demanded appointments, wisely concluding that ‘people are policy.’ ”

“It was partly why [George H.W. Bush] was not re-elected in 1992. Many evangelical leaders decided he had failed to deliver on promised appointments,” Mr. Wead said.

Mr. Donatelli himself is a pro-life Catholic and a McCain loyalist installed in March as the candidate’s “presence” backing up Republican National Chairman Mike Duncan at the party’s national headquarters.

The McCain campaign’s evangelical asset with the highest national profile is Mr. Bauer, who once headed the Family Research Council, was President Reagan’s undersecretary of education and then White House domestic policy adviser. He backed Mr. McCain’s 2000 GOP nomination effort after folding his own primary bid.

The man with the most presidential campaign experience is Robert C. Heckman, the McCain conservative outreach director. He was the Bauer campaign’s political director eight years ago and before that was religious outreach director for Phil Gramm’s 1996 GOP nomination bid. Another name that rings bells in evangelical circles is Brett O’Donnell, the McCain campaign’s “director of messaging,” who was a debate coach at the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.

Two high-profile campaign assets from the political world are former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, an alumnus of evangelical Wheaton College, and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican and a Catholic who sought the GOP nomination earlier this year as a social conservative.

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