McCain, Romney Vying for Support Of Conservatives

By Alan Cooperman and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 13, 2007

As a former Iowa state Republican chairman, head of Iowa Right to Life and political director of Rep. Jim Nussle's losing gubernatorial campaign, Marlys Popma is an experienced political operative as well as an evangelical Christian.

So when the phone calls started from Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Republican presidential candidates eager for her help in the crucial Iowa caucuses next year, she knew this was not an election she could sit out. "You're never going to find the perfect candidate," she said.

For many social conservatives, that is an understatement. Twelve years ago, Romney said he would be a more effective proponent of gay rights than Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.); seven years ago, McCain said the Republican Party had no place for "agents of intolerance" such as Jerry Falwell.

Popma, however, felt she had to make a choice, and it was McCain.

For McCain, it was a hard-won endorsement in a fierce competition with Romney to exploit the absence of an obvious social conservative front-runner in the Republican race. Both candidates are working hard to line up key supporters such as Popma, and much to the distress of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.), candidates with stronger ties to party conservatives, they are succeeding.

"Winability is a bigger issue in this campaign because of the Darth Vader-like specter of a Hillary Clinton presidency," according to the Rev. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's policy arm. Evangelicals "want the most socially conservative candidate they can find, who can win," he added.

Romney, who is expected to formally enter the presidential race today in Dearborn, Mich., has been particularly aggressive. In October he held a casual gathering at his Boston home for a who's who of social conservative leaders. Falwell and evangelist Franklin Graham munched on sandwiches and sipped soup alongside former presidential candidate Gary Bauer and pastor Richard Lee of First Redeemer Church in Atlanta.

Romney will also host a private reception for Christian radio and television hosts during the National Religious Broadcasters' annual meeting next week in Orlando, and he is expected to be the commencement speaker at the Rev. Pat Robertson's Regent University in May.

Not to be outdone, McCain will be feted by Falwell at a reception at the religious broadcasters' convention, the latest sign of detente between onetime adversaries. Last May, McCain delivered the commencement address at Falwell's Liberty University.

McCain and Romney have also done significant spadework to recruit well-regarded social conservative operatives to their cause. McCain has inked Marlene Elwell, who oversaw Robertson's 1988 presidential campaign in Michigan, and Judy Haynes, a former senior official in the Christian Coalition. Romney's team includes Gary Marx, a former head of the Virginia Christian Coalition who was the day-to-day coordinator of evangelical support for President Bush's reelection campaign.

But McCain and Romney have significant hurdles to overcome if they are to win the support of conservative Christians, who by one estimate make up a quarter of the electorate and at least 40 percent of the Republican base.

McCain has backed expanded stem cell research, blocked the "nuclear option" that would have allowed the Senate to hold up-or-down votes on the appointment of judges, and sponsored campaign finance legislation the Christian political community loathes because of its restrictions on election-related activity by grass-roots groups.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company