McCain’s comments Wednesday to the Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes that former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge’s pro-abortion rights views wouldn’t necessarily rule him out quickly found their way into the in-boxes of Christian conservatives. For those who have been anxiously awaiting McCain’s pick as a signal of his ideological intentions, there was deep concern that their worst fears about the Arizona senator may be realized.
“It absolutely floored me,” said Phil Burress, head of the Ohio-based Citizens for Community Values. “It would doom him in Ohio.”
Burress emailed about a dozen “pro-family leaders” he knows outside Ohio and forwarded it to three McCain aides tasked with Christian conservative outreach.
“That choice will end his bid for the presidency and spell defeat for other Republican candidates,” Burress wrote in the message.
He and other Ohio conservatives met privately with McCain in June, and while the nominee didn’t promise them an anti-abortion rights running mate, his staff said they could “almost guarantee” that would be the case, Burress recalled.
Now, Burress said, “he’s not even sure [Christian conservatives] would vote for him let alone work for him if he picked a pro-abortion running mate.”
James Muffett, head of Michigan’s Citizens for Traditional Values, met with McCain along with a handful of other Michigan-based social conservatives Wednesday night.
“A good portion of us were urging him to pick a pro-life running mate,” Muffett said, noting that they were doing so before even getting wind of the Standard story. “That choice would go a long way to solidify his credentials.”
Muffett said McCain didn’t offer any promises on the issue, but rather reiterated his anti-abortion record and assured them that he was aware of how critical the base was to the electoral success of Republican presidents dating back to Ronald Reagan.
To select a running mate who supports abortion rights would be “wrong-headed, short-sighted, fracture the Republican Party and not allow us to capitalize on the Democratic Party’s fracture right now,” Muffett argued.
“If he does that, it makes our job 100 times harder. It would dampen enthusiasm at a time when evangelicals are looking for ways to gin up enthusiasm.”
McCain, Muffett said, got that message in their meeting.
“Some people in the movement say it would be the kiss of death. He heard that in the room last night.”
With polls showing McCain and Obama still neck-and-neck in many competitive states, conservatives argue that their candidate must turn out Christian conservatives in large numbers to win.
In Iowa, for example, many in the GOP say Bush won in 2004 after losing there in 2000 because he bolstered turnout among the religious right in the conservative western part of the state and in exurban areas.
“Bush only won by 10,000 votes,” recalled Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Christian Alliance and a Republican committeeman from the state. “You’re going to have to have a huge turnout of that base again for McCain to win.”
And, Scheffler noted, it’s not just a matter of ensuring that social conservatives vote – picking a supporter of abortion rights could erode McCain’s volunteer base.
“Ninety percent of the workforce for Bush in ’04 came out of that constituency,” he said, alluding to the Christian right. “Picking a Ridge or a [Joseph] Lieberman would not be helpful at all.”
Rep. Peter Hoekstra, who represents a conservative, heavily Dutchdistrict in western Michigan where Republicans traditionally pile up huge margins, said a pro-abortion rights running mate “would be problematic.”
“That’s not where they’d want him going,” Hoekstra said of the party base.
McCain’s campaign sought to tamp down the uproar, suggesting the candidate had merely been overly expansive about a sensitive topic and hadn’t intended to float a trial balloon.
“The point that McCain was making is that people can differ on one issue and still be a vital member of our party,” said an aide. “The fact that Governor Ridge is not perfectly in line with the party platform does not make him any less of a Republican.”
In the interview, McCain said “the pro-life position is one of the important aspects or fundamentals of the Republican Party.”
“And I also feel that — and I'm not trying to equivocate here — that Americans want us to work together. You know, Tom Ridge is one of the great leaders and he happens to be pro-choice. And I don't think that that would necessarily rule Tom Ridge out [for vice-president].”
He added: “I think it's a fundamental tenet of our party to be pro-life, but that does not mean we exclude people from our party that are pro-choice. We just have a — albeit strong — but just it's a disagreement. And I think Ridge is a great example of that.”
The GOP base aside, some observers believe that picking an outside-the-box running mate such as Lieberman could help McCain with the broad middle of the country who are fed up with the political status quo and enable him to pick off even more Clinton backers.
“This move to a pro-choice running mate such as Lieberman could help reshape his message to appeal to swing voters,” said Doug Schoen, a Democratic pollster who worked for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg when he was a Republican and has written a book about moving away from the two-party system. “The right-wing is not going anywhere and choice is a key issue for over-40 women who voted for Hillary in the primaries.”
But to some in the GOP who supported other candidates in the primary and are having trouble mustering much enthusiasm for McCain, the mere mention of a pro-choice running mate is disheartening.
“A lot of the troops here are on the fence or disappointed,” said Elizabeth Sipfle, a Michigan Republican and former leader of Mike Huckabee’s grassroots “Huck’s Army” organization who contacted Politico to register her concern. “Let’s not get our blood boiling.”
“Be smart,” she urged McCain. “There’s a big group here that’s already feeling marginalized.”