If Christian conservatives stay on the sidelines during the fall campaign, presidential hopefulprobably stays in the Senate.
Christian conservatives provided much of the on-the-ground, door-to-door activity for President Bush's 2004 re-election in Ohio and in other swing states. Without them, the less-organized and lower-profile McCain campaign is likely to struggle to replicate Bush's success. And so far, there's been scant sign that the Republican nominee-in-waiting is making inroads among these fervent believers.
"I don't know that McCain's campaign realizes they cannot win without evangelicals," said David Domke, a professor of communication at the University of Washington who studies religion and politics. "What you see with McCain is just a real struggle to find his footing with evangelicals."
Family groups in Ohio outlined their doubts about the Arizona senator in a meeting with McCain's advisers last weekend. They're concerned about his record on abortion rights and on campaign finance laws that they believe limited their ability to criticize candidates who are pro-choice on abortion.
"There's certainly a little reservation about Mr. McCain. I think the VP choice is going to be important," said Chris Long, president of the Ohio Christian Alliance. "If they choose a conservative for the VP, that will help his campaign. It would go a long way of sending a positive message to evangelicals."
Marlys Popma, McCain's director of evangelical outreach, was one of two aides who met with the forum and reminded them of McCain's record supporting school choice while opposing abortion rights and Internet pornography. She said the campaign understands the interest in the vice presidential nominee, but she noted that McCain "is the one who is going to be nominating judges. He's going to be the one who is signing or not signing bills."
"John McCain is their guy," Popma said. "John McCain's record is what will bring individuals to him. I think there are some people out there who do not know John McCain's record."
McCain's senior aides try to downplay the fissure with this part of the GOP's base. They say their internal polling data suggests McCain has the support of three-quarters of white evangelicals in swing states, slightly less than Bush finished with. They also stress that McCain is against abortion rights, even if it's not the centerpiece of his campaign.
McCain, who identifies himself as Episcopalian and attended Baptist services last weekend, has done himself no favors. He appeared ignorant of high-profile figures, especially as he sought- and then was forced to reject - the support from Ohio's Rod Parsley and Texas' John Hagee after their controversial sermons brought the candidate unwanted criticism.
"That was one of the most ill-advised faith and values adventures this campaign," said Jacques Berlinerblau, a religious scholar at Georgetown University who studies faith and the U.S. presidential campaign.
It gave religious conservatives yet another reason not to like McCain, even though he has sought a truce this time after calling televangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell "agents of intolerance" during his first presidential run.
"It's hard to believe he's really changed, from his absolute disregard and disdain for the traditional guard of the religious right," Domke said.
Republican Ken Blackwell, Ohio's former secretary of state, coordinated Bush's campaign in the state and built a strong ground game from Christian conservatives. He said he appreciates McCain's bluntness but doesn't think it's helping him with the base.
"He has never identified with the evangelical and Christian movement and therefore he can, at times, misread or misinterpret certain activities in the political field of play or certain comments that are offered," said Blackwell, now at the Family Research Council, a conservative think tank. "I personally would like for John to get to the point of comfort with some of our issues and policy positions, through understanding and genuine acceptance."
High-emotion ballot initiatives banning gay marriage in 11 states helped drive conservatives to the polls in 2004. Ohio's ban helped give Bush a win by energizing the party's base in a state that every successful Republican presidential candidate has won. But only two states proposed such bans this year: Florida, a swing state, and California, which has been an easy win for Democrats in recent years.
One of the more influential figures among Christian conservatives, James Dobson, told listeners to his popular Focus on the Family radio program this week that Obama's religious views are problematic. Yet Dobson continued to vent about McCain, who has not been a vocal supporter of Arizona's state ban on gay marriage.
"This is a year when we have a lot of frustration with both political parties," Dobson said Tuesday.
Domke's research suggests Obama could lose big among older evangelicals, particularly elite faith-based activists, who take their cues from Dobson.
Bob Heckman, who leads McCain's outreach to conservatives, said voters will see clear differences - and McCain's values better dovetail with their views than do Obama's, he added.
"Part of our job is to remind them they're down to a binary choices," Heckman said.
But Dobson has not backed off his statement that he could not in good conscience vote for McCain and has suggested he might not cast a presidential ballot.
"A lot of evangelicals would rather take a defeat than to vote for a candidate they don't trust," Domke said. "A Republican defeat, particularly McCain's defeat, would help their movement."
Although the Arizona Republican's advisers privately worry about rejection by the religious right, McCain's campaign lacks the faith-based savvy of Bush's campaigns. McCain skipped the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting, a gathering that Bush addressed by video in 2004. Unlike Bush, whose campaign also threw a private reception at that meeting, McCain didn't even bother sending aides.
Meanwhile, Obama's campaign is aggressively reaching out to evangelicals.
The Illinois senator dispatched former 9/11 Commission member Tim Roemer to meet with fellow Roman Catholics. He sent Brian McLaren, one of the country's most influential pastors, to meet with fellow evangelicals. And aides have conducted more than 200 "American Values Forums," soon to be followed up with house parties and town hall-style meetings aimed at young Catholics and young evangelicals.
Obama's strategy isn't aimed at outpolling McCain among evangelicals.
"Obama knows he can't win (among evangelicals)," said Berlinerblau, who wrote "Thumpin' It: The Use and Abuse of the Bible in Today's Presidential Politics."
"If he can get up for 21 to 30 percent, he's gold," Berlinerblau said. "And that's exactly what he's doing. He's going to fissure off this progressive evangelical voter."