But after Saturday night’s televised forum at the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., John McCain has taken an important step toward shoring up his support among the Republican Party’s Christian conservative base.
Even as speculation swirls that McCain could choose a running mate who supports abortion rights — a move that would surely anger Christian conservatives — the presumptive Republican nominee is enjoying a lift from his performance in last weekend’s forum.
“We’re getting tons of phone calls left and right,” said George Andrews, the executive director of the Orange County, Calif., Republican Party. “Overall, people have been calling and saying John McCain did an outstanding job.”
The forum, hosted by Rick Warren, the pastor of the 22,000-member Saddleback Church and author of the best-selling book "The Purpose-Driven Life," featured back-to-back, hour-long interviews with both McCain and his general election opponent, Barack Obama, on subjects ranging from abortion and judicial nominations to personal moral failures.
Several conservative activists identified McCain’s response to the question, “What point is a baby entitled to human rights?” as his finest moment of the evening.
McCain replied quickly: “At the moment of conception,” and continued: “I have a 25-year pro-life record in the Congress, in the Senate. And as president of the United States, I will be a pro-life president.”
“He was just right out of the box,” said Lynda Bell, the president of Florida Right to Life. “McCain was so incredibly decisive and he was so clear in his answers. There was no gray area.”
“They feel like this is the start of John McCain’s coming out, in terms of embracing the conservative evangelicals,” Andrews said, comparing the event to the 2000 primary debate in which George W. Bush named Jesus Christ as the philosopher who had influenced him most.
According to Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Christian conservatives were especially eager to hear this message from McCain.
“I think they needed to hear it and they needed to hear it when the question was asked in that way, that protections need to come at the moment of conception,” Land said. “That removes all doubt.”
Obama, on the other hand, avoided a clear response: “I think that whether you’re looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade.”
“That was an evasion that didn’t work,” said Land.
McCain has a steadfastly conservative voting record on many social issues, but does not talk about these topics on the campaign trail as often, or as enthusiastically, as he does national security and terrorism.
Since June, McCain has not given a single speech focused on social issues, and in the public remarks posted on his website he has referred to God just eight times and religious faith, more broadly, only once.
Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, said Christian conservatives needed to hear McCain talk about social issues to get enthusiastic about his candidacy.
“Most people, they don’t do this for a living, they don’t study a candidate’s record, and even when they see a record, it has to be backed up by the candidate talking about it and making it important,” Perkins said.
Indeed, in a Pew survey released July 10, 38 percent of those surveyed could not identify the Arizona senator’s stance on the issue the same percentage could not identify Barack Obama’s position).
The importance of McCain’s performance at the Saddleback Church, then, was to show religious conservatives that the candidate genuinely cared about their issues.
“People were, before, just kind of wringing their hands thinking, what kind of mess do we have here, what kind of choice do we have,” Perkins said. “I think he stopped the … ambivalence that was out there toward John McCain.”
Andrews agreed, explaining: “When they see McCain’s actual position and him talking about it, it makes a difference, instead of looking at roll call tallies.”
“McCain’s performance was so genuine and so real,” Bell added. “This became clearly, no longer that, ‘This is the best of the two choices,’ and moved from that over to, ‘This is a great, great candidate that we need to get behind.’”
Some conservatives were less impressed by McCain’s performance. Bob Enyart, a director of Colorado Right to Life, called McCain’s anti-abortion statements “a stunning contradiction to his entire political career,” and criticized the presumptive GOP nominee for failing to support Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker’s proposed Life at Conception Act, which would attempt to extend legal protection to prenatal life.
“Either he had a heartfelt conversion on Saturday, or this is more manipulative electioneering,” Enyart said.”
For most religious conservatives, however, McCain’s performance stood out as especially praiseworthy in contrast to that of Obama.
“What Saturday night provided was the closest view of the contrast between the two candidates that we’ve seen,” Perkins said, adding that he found Obama’s performance meandering and evasive.
Obama has trailed McCain among white evangelical voters throughout the campaign — in June, a Pew poll showed him losing that group 61 percent to 25 percent — but he has reached out to these voters on subjects such as faith-based initiatives in the hope of winning a larger slice of that demographic group than previous Democratic presidential candidates.
But Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Christian Alliance, said the general election is bringing clarity to the race for social conservatives, many of whom backed candidates other than McCain in the Republican primary.
“When you have eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve candidates running, it takes people a while to get enthused,” Scheffler said. “When you have a choice between someone you agree with on 80 percent of issues and someone who agreed with you on zero, the choice becomes crystal clear.”
McCain’s work courting Christian conservatives, however, is far from complete. With his party’s convention approaching and the announcement of a vice presidential candidate slated for Aug. 29, McCain may need to take advantage of these opportunities to keep reaching out to this key Republican constituency.
Land mentioned McCain’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention as an opportunity for him to build excitement among Christian conservatives about his candidacy.
“You’ve got to gin up the base,” Land said, suggesting that McCain should make social issues a central element of his convention address and adding: “I think he will come a lot closer to sealing the deal if he picks a pro-life running mate.”
Indications have surfaced this week that McCain might deviate from party orthodoxy by choosing an abortion-rights supporter, such as former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge or Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, as his running mate. On Sunday, Ridge told "Fox News Sunday" that he thought the GOP would be open to a vice presidential candidate who supports abortion rights.
“The party will just implode&rdqu; if McCain makes such a choice, Perkins warned. “[Social conservatives] are going to have to know that he’s totally committed to these issues, and that’s going to require a running mate that has an even better ability to communicate with the base than John McCain has.”