Sunday, June 8, 2008

New York Times: Evangelicals Wary of McCain

As this year's election campaign shifts into higher gear, today's New York Times (McCain Extends His Outreach, but Evangelicals Are Still Wary) reports that one of Senator John McCain’s biggest challenges in the current presidential campaign is this: a continued wariness toward him among evangelicals and other Christian conservatives, a critical voting bloc for Republicans that could stay home in the fall or at least be decidedly unenthusiastic in their efforts to get out the vote.

The Times article compares the relationship between President George Bush and the evangelical community with that of the community and Senator McCain, noting that in 2004, President Bush's openness about his personal faith and stances on social issues earned him a following among evangelicals, who represented about a quarter of the electorate that year.  Indeed, exit polls found that 78 percent of white “born again” or evangelical Protestants voted for President Bush. 

On the other hand, article states, Senator McCain’s relationship with evangelicals has long been troubled.  For example, in 2000, when he was running against President Bush for the Republican nomination, the Arizona Senator castigated evangelical ministers Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as “agents of intolerance.”  The article continues:

In a sign of the lingering distrust, Mr. McCain finished last out of nine Republican candidates in a straw poll last year at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, a gathering for socially conservative activists.

James C. Dobson, the influential founder of the evangelical group Focus on the Family, released a statement in February, when Mr. McCain was on the verge of securing the Republican nomination, affirming that he would not vote for Mr. McCain and would instead stay home if he became the nominee. Dr. Dobson later softened his stance and said he would vote but has remained critical of Mr. McCain.

The wariness Senator McCain faces among evangelicals is summed up in the words of Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council:

“For John McCain to be competitive, he has to connect with the base to the point that they’re intense enough that they’re contagious.  Right now they’re not even coughing.”

Notwithstanding the wariness among evangelicals, the Times reports that a small group of McCain staff members and surrogates have begun stepping up -- largely behind the scenes -- his outreach to evangelicals and other social conservatives.  Additionally, about a dozen people, including staffers and socially conservative leaders who are advising the campaign, have reportedly begun a weekly conference call to plot strategy on reaching the evangelical/social conservative voting bloc for Senator McCain.


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