The Front-Runners

John McCain: Can He Be a Falwell Republican?

By Byron York
Sunday, May 7, 2006

Last October, J. David Woodard, a Clemson University political scientist who doubles as a strategist for conservative Republican candidates, polled 450 South Carolina GOP voters, asking: "When it comes to politics, do you consider yourself closer to George W. Bush or John McCain?" Sixty-three percent picked Bush. Twenty-one percent said it made no difference. And just 16 percent chose McCain.

The message? "I think McCain has a lot of work to do if he's going to win here," Woodard told me recently. "There is a long-term memory, especially with Christian conservatives, about his comments after the 2000 race."

Woodard was referring to a famous speech McCain delivered a week after he lost the South Carolina primary to Bush, in which the Arizona senator denounced Jerry Falwell, along with Pat Robertson, Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton, as "agents of intolerance" who were "corrupting influences" in American politics. The next day, McCain hit Falwell and Robertson even harder, blasting them for what he called "the evil influence that they exercise over the Republican Party."

McCain later retracted the "evil" part, but Christian conservatives have not forgotten. Now as he prepares for another presidential run, this time as the GOP's presumptive front-runner, McCain must try to undo the damage he inflicted upon himself six years ago. Next weekend, the senator will travel to Lynchburg, Va., to deliver the commencement address at Falwell's Liberty University -- setting off intense speculation that he is pandering to the right in an effort to secure the Republican nomination. "Are you freaking out on us?" asked Jon Stewart, host of "The Daily Show" and an avowed McCain admirer. "Are you going into the crazy-base world?"

No, he isn't. Falwell approached McCain, not the other way around. And interviews with both suggest that it is Falwell, not McCain, who is more willing to be flexible. McCain's visit to Liberty University is indeed a conciliatory signal not just to Falwell but to millions of Christian conservatives who question the depth of McCain's commitment on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. But it is as much a chance for Falwell and his supporters to assert their influence in the Republican Party -- an influence that has waned in recent years.

If McCain's outreach succeeds, the effort could pay off not only in South Carolina, where the senator's defeat in the 2000 primary doomed his presidential bid, but also in Iowa, a state with many politically active Christian conservatives and a crucial role once again in the next election. In short, Liberty University could help make John McCain the Republican presidential nominee in 2008.

Last September, with a McCain candidacy on the horizon and the senator out-polling most other potential Republican candidates, Falwell called the senator and asked for an appointment. The two had not spoken for years, since before the 2000 election.

The McCain camp was surprised, to put it mildly. "I don't know that any of us thought that we could pick up the phone and call down to Lynchburg and have a discussion," said John Weaver, McCain's longtime political adviser. "I don't know that we would have been bold enough." Yet when Falwell reached out ("A call out of the heavens, out of the blue," Weaver termed it), McCain was ready to accept. On Sept. 20, they spoke.

"I made it clear that I wanted to talk to him about the future, not the past," Falwell told me. "It took about five minutes in the meeting to bury all our little differences of six years ago, and then we talked about the future."

McCain recalls: "He said, 'I'd like to put our differences behind us.' " And the senator -- who insists he's long over his own bad feelings from 2000 -- was happy to go along. "The hardest thing I've had in my life -- and I have to tell myself this every day -- is, don't hold a grudge. After I lost that election, I had 10 wonderful days of feeling sorry for myself. Then I woke up one night and said, 'Stop this.' "

Later, Falwell asked McCain to come to Liberty University. The trip has been portrayed as the beginning of a rapprochement, but in fact the reconciliation is already well underway. When I asked Falwell if he could see himself supporting McCain for president, he quickly answered, "Of course. If he is the candidate, he'll certainly have my support." That doesn't mean McCain will be Falwell's favorite in the primary, but it does mean there probably will be no 2000-style war.

Theirs is a reconciliation based on mutual need. For his part, McCain needs the support of at least some Christian conservatives. Even though they aren't as organized as they used to be -- just look at the greatly weakened Christian Coalition -- they're still powerful in states such as South Carolina, and they still respect Falwell. "You'd have real problems winning if they didn't support you," Woodard says. "And if they're united against you, you're in trouble." That's what happened to McCain in 2000.

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