Conservatives contend that federal judges have upset the constitutional balance of power among the courts, the Congress and the presidency by making far-reaching decisions, such as one in 2005 that let cities seize people's homes to make way for shopping malls.
"My nominees will understand that there are clear limits to the scope of judicial power, and clear limits to the scope of federal power," McCain said Tuesday in a speech at Wake Forest University.
McCain, the eventual GOP nominee, promised to appoint judges in the mold of Roberts and Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, saything they would interpret the law strictly to curb the scope of their rulings. While McCain didn't mention abortion, the far right understands that such nominees would be likely to limit or perhaps overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.
Obama, on the other hand, voted against Roberts and Alito. So did Obama's rival,, but McCain focused on Obama.
"Senator Obama in particular likes to talk up his background as a lecturer on law, and also as someone who can work across the aisle to get things done," McCain said. "But ... he went right along with the partisan crowd, and was among the 22 senators to vote against this highly qualified nominee."
"Apparently, nobody quite fits the bill except for an elite group of activist judges, lawyers, and law professors who think they know wisdom when they see it and they see it only in each other," McCain said.
Obama's campaign responded that McCain would pick judges who represent a threat to abortion rights and to McCain's own campaign finance reform bill.
"Barack Obama has always believed that our courts should stand up for social and economic justice, and what's truly elitist is to appoint judges who will protect the powerful and leave ordinary Americans to fend for themselves," Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said.
The Arizona senator said his role models interpret the law strictly, paying attention to what lawmakers intended, as opposed to "activist" judges who, by striking down statutes or court decisions, make laws rather than interpret them. "Activist" is a term conservatives use pejoratively to criticize liberal justices.
Yet in the private property case McCain mentioned, the Supreme Court decided to defer to local officials rather than impose their own will from afar. Justice John Paul Stevens, in his majority opinion, wrote of the high court's "longstanding policy of deference to legislative judgments in this field."
McCain appeared confused about where he was for a moment Tuesday, saying, "I appreciate the hospitality of the students and faculty of West Virginia," then correcting himself to say Wake Forest as the audience laughed.
By speaking about judges, McCain offered an olive branch to the Christian right, which has been deeply suspicious of McCain.
He has clashed with its leaders and worked against them on issues like campaign finance reform. He also joined the "Gang of 14," a group of senators seven Republicans and seven Democrats who avoided a showdown over judges by agreeing to preserve the minority party's right to block President Bush's nominees with the filibuster.
Despite his rocky relations with the right, McCain's record on their top priorities cultural issues like abortion is very conservative.
While he did say once in 1999 that Roe v. Wade should not be overturned, that amounted to a blip in an otherwise unbroken record of opposing abortion rights for women. McCain has repeatedly voted against federal funding for abortion and has opposed federal Medicaid funds for abortion even in cases of rape or incest.