John McCain denounced Pat Robertson in his home town of Virginia Beach yesterday for "political intolerance" as the Arizona senator looked beyond today's Virginia primary and sought to tie rival George W. Bush as tightly as possible to the Christian conservative movement.
The sharply worded speech was the latest in a series of increasingly acrimonious exchanges as McCain seeks to portray himself as a mainstream conservative and the Texas governor as a captive to extremists within the movement. McCain also singled out the Rev. Jerry Falwell, based in Lynchburg, Va., as one of the "agents of intolerance."
The strategy, political analysts said, is more likely to bear fruit in next week's "Super Tuesday" voting in 12 states including California, New York and Maryland than in Virginia, where Christian conservatives are a crucial bloc in the GOP electorate.
All 3.7 million registered voters are free to cast a ballot in Virginia today as long as they sign a pledge not to participate in another party's nomination process, but analysts expect Republican voters to dominate. The winner will take all 56 of Virginia's delegates to the national GOP convention this summer.
McCain, speaking to more than 2,000 students and supporters at Cox High School in Virginia Beach, said Robertson was at the "outer reaches of American politics." The comments came in response to Robertson's description of McCain campaign chairman Warren B. Rudman, who has criticized some Christian conservatives, as a "vicious bigot" in telephone messages before the Michigan primary last week.
McCain also kept up attacks on Bush for speaking at Bob Jones University in South Carolina, a fundamentalist Christian college that bans interracial dating and is critical of Catholicism. On Sunday, Bush apologized for appearing there without distinguishing his views from those of the university.
"We are the party of Ronald Reagan, not Pat Robertson," McCain said in his 20-minute speech at Virginia Beach. "We are the party of Theodore Roosevelt, not the party of special interests. We are the party of Abraham Lincoln, not Bob Jones."
McCain said he supported Christian conservative voters and praised some of the movement's leaders--saying, "I stand with them"--in between lines critical of Robertson and others. The senator compared Robertson to "union bosses who have subordinated the interests of working families to their own ambitions" and to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and the Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights activist.
"Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics, and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell on the right."
Dennis Peterson, McCain's Virginia campaign executive director, said it was a message intended to resonate beyond the state and that the location--in the Hampton Roads area, where Robertson's Regent University, Christian Broadcasting Network and Christian Coalition are based--would maximize news coverage.
"We've created a big television studio. That's all this is," Peterson said moments before more than a dozen television cameras beamed the speech across the nation.
Robertson was in Mexico, but Christian Coalition Executive Vice President Roberta Combs denounced McCain's remarks.
"Christian Coalition will rise above this transparent effort to divide one American from another on the basis of religion," she said.
Falwell, through a spokesman, declined to comment.
Bush, campaigning in Washington state, which also has its Republican primary today, accused McCain of "playing to people's religious fears." Bush said the Arizonan "has taken to needless name-calling. I'm a problem-solver. He's a finger-pointer."
In Virginia, Bush's key supporters responded to McCain while accusing him of making phone calls that described Bush as "anti-Catholic," a charge the McCain campaign denied.
"There's nothing even Christian or even decent about anything like this," Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) said on CNN. "He didn't tell the truth about the fact that his campaign was calling into Michigan, into Roman Catholic homes in Michigan and now into Virginia doing these things. The 'Straight Talk' bus got tipped over."
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), a Bush backer who has spoken admiringly of McCain, urged him to stop "firing heat-seeking missiles up the tailpipe of everybody."
Earlier in the day, at a rally in Alexandria, Gilmore, Warner and U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) reminded voters of McCain's efforts to increase flights at Reagan National Airport despite local opposition, and of his vote to increase the tobacco tax, "further increasing the misery and suffering of people in the Southside," Gilmore said.
Mark J. Rozell, a political science professor at Catholic University who has written about the Christian right, said McCain "is banking on hatred of Pat Robertson" to mobilize his own supporters, who include many independents and Democrats.
"It's a risky strategy, because the Christian conservatives are a huge part of the Republican voting base in Virginia," Rozell said.
Christian conservatives have not been the force in Virginia's primary campaign that they were in the Feb. 19 South Carolina primary. Antiabortion forces have distributed fliers urging support for Bush, but Christian Coalition officials said that although they sent out postcards reminding their members to vote, the group did not publish its trademark voter guides. Robertson has not made the calls in Virginia that he did in Michigan, both campaigns said.
Christian conservative Gary Bauer, who quit the presidential race and endorsed McCain this month, appeared with him in Virginia Beach and told reporters that the differences between the candidates on "family issues" are slim.
"There are really minor differences between them," Bauer said. "Either would make a better president than [Democrat] Al Gore."
But the battle over religiously charged tactics heightened.
In an afternoon news conference at Bush headquarters in Richmond, Michael Rowland, 41, of Chesterfield, a member of the local Republican committee, said he received a phone call Sunday night accusing Bush of being "anti-Catholic." Bush officials said similar calls have been made in the Richmond and Virginia Beach area.
Rowland, in an interview, recounted this line from a caller: "Are you aware, as a Roman Catholic, that Governor Bush is very anti-Catholic? He is also a strong supporter of Bob Jones University in South Carolina."
McCain and his campaign officials denied making such calls.
McCain yesterday received the endorsement of prominent Vietnamese Americans in Northern Virginia, including leaders of the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian Voters League, a national group that encourages newly naturalized citizens to vote.
Staff writers David S. Broder, R.H. Melton, Ann O'Hanlon, William Branigin and Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.