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McCain's Evangelical Problem

By Robert D. Novak
Monday, June 9, 2008

Shortcomings by John McCain's campaign in the art of politics are alienating two organizations of Christian conservatives. James Dobson's Focus on the Family is estranged following the failure of Dobson and McCain to talk out their differences. Evangelicals who follow the Rev. John Hagee resent McCain's disavowal of him.

The evangelicals are not an isolated problem for the Arizona senator. Enthusiasm for McCain inside the Republican coalition is in short supply. During the four months since McCain clinched the nomination, he has not satisfied conservatives opposed to his positions on global warming, campaign finance reform, immigration, domestic oil drilling and how to ban same-sex marriages.

Among all constituency groups, evangelicals are most crucial to McCain. After supporting Jimmy Carter in 1976, Christian conservatives switched to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and since then have been indispensable to Republican presidential candidates. Dobson and Hagee, not merely inside-the-Beltway interest group chairmen or think tank managers, command substantial followings.

"I would not vote for John McCain under any circumstances," Dobson said in January 2007, adding, "I pray that we won't get stuck with him." After McCain clinched the nomination, however, Dobson privately invited him to Focus on the Family headquarters in Colorado Springs. When members of the Family Policy Council gathered there May 9 for an annual conference, word spread that McCain's campaign staff had rebuffed Dobson.

It was not that simple. The McCain campaign had responded that the senator would be in Denver on May 2 and would be happy to see Dobson in his hotel suite for a visit not limited by time. Dobson declined and asked McCain to come to Colorado Springs. McCain then also declined.

As the stalemate with Dobson continued, McCain had in his pocket an endorsement he had sought from popular televangelist Hagee. Founder and pastor of the Cornerstone megachurch in San Antonio, Hagee endorsed McCain at a joint news conference Feb. 27. William Donahue, president of the Catholic League, immediately asked whether McCain agreed with Hagee's description of Catholicism as a "Godless theology." McCain started backing away, asserting that his courtship of the pastor was "probably" a mistake.

Donahue, accustomed to no remorse by Catholic-bashers, was surprised when Hagee apologized in writing and then engaged him in a warm private meeting at Catholic League offices in New York. But Obama supporters seeking the McCain equivalent of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright were not done. The Huffington Post featured a decade-old video of Hagee asserting that Adolf Hitler was God's "hunter," who forced Jews to create the state of Israel as their natural home.

Actually, Hagee was a founder of Christians United for Israel and the first non-Jew named "humanitarian of the year" by the San Antonio B'nai B'rith. Donahue, his former adversary, called Hagee "the strongest Christian defender of Israel I have ever met." But McCain, who held his fire when reacting to Hagee's anti-Catholic remarks, had no patience with less clear evidence of anti-Semitism.

Hagee tried to preempt McCain by withdrawing his endorsement, but the candidate beat him to the punch by disavowing him (along with another megachurch supporter, the Rev. Rod Parsley of Columbus, Ohio, because of harsh words about Islam). Hagee's phone lines were clogged with calls from worshipers asking whether they should vote for McCain. Hagee replies that he doesn't know but asserts to friends that McCain "threw me under the bus."

A prominent Christian ally of McCain's understands his reluctance to make a pilgrimage to Colorado Springs with no assurance that Dobson would endorse him or even restrain his criticism of him. But this evangelical sees the treatment of Hagee as cold calculation designed to ensure that McCain does not lose the Jeremiah Wright issue.

McCain strategists are encouraged by polling data showing that their candidate is much more popular with rank-and-file conservatives than with their leaders (he leads by more than nine to one against Obama among self-identified conservative Republicans). The McCain strategy is to paint the idea of Obama in the White House as a daunting prospect, suggesting that even if the Republican candidate is no day at the beach, his Democratic opponent would be a weekend in hell -- whether or not James Dobson and John Hagee agree.

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Correction: The McLaughlin and Associates poll cited in my June 5 column indicating 49 percent support for John McCain and 38 percent for Barack Obama referred only to white women. Among all women, it was Obama 45, McCain 43.

© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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