As McCain targets center can he hold the right?

DALLAS Thu May 1, 2008 4:50pm EDT

Republican US presidential candidate Senator John McCain listens speaks during a news conference at Miami's Children Hospital in Florida April 28, 2008. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Republican US presidential candidate Senator John McCain listens speaks during a news conference at Miami's Children Hospital in Florida April 28, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Carlos Barria

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DALLAS (Reuters) - Sen. John McCain is aiming for America's political center in the hopes of hitting a political bulls-eye in the November U.S. presidential election.

Departing from the strategy of focusing on the right-wing

and evangelical Christian base that won fellow Republican George W. Bush two elections, McCain is reaching out more to independents and encroaching on traditional Democratic territory.

Analysts say his reach for the middle makes sense given his shaky standing with the party's right wing, although wooing this group at the same time could be a delicate balancing act.

Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said the Bush strategy, guided by his political mentor Karl Rove, was to "pound the base endlessly hoping for a narrow majority."

That strategy showed its limitations in the 2006 congressional elections, however, when, with the country mired in the Iraq war and the economy weakening, Republicans lost control of Congress.

"The assumption now is that there is an independent vote in the middle of the electorate disgusted with both party fringes," Jillson said.

A March survey by the Pew Research Center showed McCain polling ahead of both his two possible Democratic presidential rivals, Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, among voters who are not already committed to one party or the other.

McCain has been showing a kind of concern for social issues more associated with Democrats than Republicans. Last week he went on a "poverty tour," visiting depressed Kentucky coal towns and New Orleans, which is still recovering from its 2005 battering by Hurricane Katrina.

This week the 71-year-old Vietnam veteran and war hero has been on a tour to highlight his health care proposals.

The Bush/Rove strategy that Jillson described was aimed at conservative evangelical Protestants who were galvanized to get out and vote by the use of so-called hot button social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

McCain gets poor marks from some prominent conservative evangelicals who are angered by his past support for stem cell research and his failure to back a federal constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, among other things.

But his consistent opposition to abortion rights gives him some credit among religiously-motivated social conservatives and his unflinching support for the Iraq war appeals to the right wing.

McCain's emphasis on family choice in health care and proposals for private sector initiatives to combat joblessness and poverty appeal to both moderate and conservative voters.

EVANGELICAL CENTER

McCain's poverty and health care tours also resonate with members of the so-called "evangelical center" -- who want a broader political agenda including more support for the poor and action on issues like climate change.

About one in four U.S. adults count themselves as evangelical Protestants, giving them serious political clout and the movement has been widening its list of social and political priorities.

A Zogby poll taken during a vote for the party presidential nomination in Ohio in March showed 42 percent of white evangelicals ranked jobs and the economy as the most important issues in deciding how to vote, while just 14 percent put abortion and opposition to same-sex marriage on top.

"I think politically in America today there is a dislike of polarizing politics and a search for the center," said Scott Jones, the resident bishop of the Kansas area for the United Methodist Church.

"McCain and other politicians ... are reaching out to Christians in the center who are ... fertile ground for any politician," he told Reuters.

McCain's opposition to abortion rights combined with his condemnation of the use of torture by U.S. forces and his departure from Bush on issues such as climate change have won him high marks from some centrist evangelical leaders.

Some leaders of the "Religious Right," the Republican Party's social conservative base, have also been calling for their movement to publicly embrace a broader agenda and McCain's poverty and health care initiatives strike a chord.

"These are issues that social conservatives also care about. For example what he is proposing in health care is that families have a choice," said Tony Perkins, the president of the conservative Family Research Council who is regarded as one of the most influential figures on the Religious Right.

(Editing by David Storey)

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