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John McCain: Can He Be a Falwell Republican?

But Falwell needs McCain, too. Many conservatives in Washington, especially younger ones, roll their eyes at the mention of Falwell's name. Nobody listens to him anymore, they say; his time has passed, his audience is shrinking, and he has been supplanted by younger, less overtly political evangelists such as Rick Warren and Joel Osteen. An overstatement, perhaps, but Falwell is indeed much diminished from the figure he was 15 years ago. That's why a high-profile visit from McCain is so valuable to him. "When a guy who called you an agent of intolerance comes down and kisses the ring, it's both a symbolic and a substantive gesture that you and the constituency you represent are vital," says one GOP strategist. "That's never a bad signal to send."

There has been much discussion about McCain changing his positions to win the support of conservative Republicans. But the senator -- antiabortion, pro-traditional marriage, pro-war, pro-fiscal responsibility -- doesn't need to change his positions. Rather, he must convince conservatives that he really means them.

Many Christian conservatives seem willing to give McCain another chance, but they're wary. They worry that despite his solid voting record against abortion rights, he is not deep-down, unwaveringly on their side. "They're going to say, 'You're pro-life? Let's talk. What about stem-cell research?' " Woodard says. "They'll say, 'You're a Republican, you're pro-life -- well, we kind of expect that. Tell us about the depth of your conviction.' "

As an unannounced candidate, McCain now speaks mostly in generalities. But when talking to conservative Republicans, he pushes the right buttons to assure them that he's on their side on abortion and other cultural issues. Instead of getting into specifics, he stresses that he would appoint conservative justices to the Supreme Court. During a trip to South Carolina in January, McCain met privately with Barry Wynn, former head of the state Republican Party and a top Bush fundraiser. Wynn told me McCain made no promises -- but he still got the message across. "He said it primarily by just talking about why John Roberts and Samuel Alito were ideal choices," Wynn said. "He sings their praises to a high pitch; it's kind of two and two equals four; you certainly get the idea that these are the kind of people he would nominate."

If McCain wins conservatives' trust on abortion, he might still face skepticism on same-sex marriage. "I told him that there were two deal breakers with religious conservatives," Falwell says of his meeting with McCain. "One is the life issue, and the other is the family issue. Support for the traditional husband-and-wife family is not nice, it is necessary for us."

At the very least, that could pose a challenge for a senator who voted against the federal marriage amendment (FMA) in 2004 and promises to do so again when Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) brings it up in June -- just in time to become an issue in the midterm elections. But McCain may find a way to finesse the trouble.

McCain says he will vote against FMA because he doesn't believe marriage should be a nationwide issue -- at least not now. "I'm a federalist," he told me. "I believe that a state ought to decide what happens within that state. I've always held that position on a broad variety of issues." But as he stands ready to vote against the FMA, McCain is cosponsoring a state amendment on the ballot in Arizona that would define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Furthermore, he assured Falwell that if federal courts overrule the states on their various defense-of-marriage laws, he would change his position and support the FMA.

When I asked Falwell if he was satisfied with McCain's position, he said, without hesitating, "I am." He added: "I wish he would shortcut it, because I don't think there's any question that the federal courts are one by one going to overrule the state amendments." So, though he would like more, Falwell has given some manner of blessing to a candidate who will vote against the FMA. That's quite an accomplishment for McCain.

On other issues important to the GOP's conservative base, there's no need for much finesse. McCain is a hawk's hawk on Iraq and has essentially promised to be the last man standing in favor of the war there. "The consequences of failure are so catastrophic that the challenges to our security over time are hard to imagine," he told me.

He's a hawk on cutting federal spending, too. On April 28, after the Senate succeeded in killing a $15 million program to encourage Americans to eat more seafood, McCain was almost jumping with joy. "We won one!" he said as he picked up the phone for our interview. "We won one!"

On immigration, McCain probably will satisfy conservatives when he advocates building "not a fence, but a wall" along high-traffic areas of the U.S. border with Mexico -- and disappoint them when he advocates, along with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a program of near-amnesty for illegal immigrants already here. That could hurt him badly with a Republican electorate that wants tough enforcement combined with no amnesty. But McCain might be saved by the fact that, at least so far, there's no GOP candidate with a position that satisfies the great majority of Republicans.

The remarkable thing at this point is that McCain even has a chance to win over the conservatives who opposed him so strongly -- and who found themselves on the receiving end of his anger -- six years ago. They like much of what they hear from him, and they value the loyalty he showed in 2004 when he campaigned hard for Bush's reelection. These days, as the president's popularity falls and some political analysts expect Republicans to run away from him, that's the kind of with-you-in-tough-times allegiance that wins points in the South Carolina GOP.

"I think people are willing to give him a fresh look," Wynn told me. "People have walked out of those meetings [with McCain] feeling better than they thought they would feel when they went in. I think people are very open-minded."

Byron York covers the White House for National Review and is the author of "The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy" (Crown Forum).

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