| SAN ANTONIO
SAN ANTONIO Republican presidential candidate John McCain won the endorsement of Texas evangelical leader John Hagee on Wednesday, which could boost his standing among religious conservatives who have been reluctant to embrace the likely nominee.
Hagee, who heads a 19,000-member church in San Antonio, is best known for his outspoken support of Israel and writings on the Middle East, where he envisions a blood-soaked clash between East and West leading to the return of Jesus Christ.
"I'm very honored by Pastor John Hagee's endorsement today," McCain said at a news conference. "He has been the staunchest leader of our Christian evangelical movement in many areas, but especially, most especially, his close ties and advocacy for the freedom and independence of the state of Israel."
Hagee, standing beside the candidate, said he admired McCain's pro-Israel stance, commitment to nominate conservative judges and opposition to abortion.
"Victory is within our grasp because John McCain knows it's never wrong to do the right thing," Hagee said.
Christian conservatives are an important part of the Republican base, but many have so far been reluctant to support the Arizona senator.
Coast-to-coast primary victories on February 5 made McCain the all-but-certain Republican nominee, but many evangelicals continue to support rival Mike Huckabee, a Baptist preacher and former Arkansas governor. Several conservative Christian leaders have said they will not vote for McCain in November if he is the nominee.
McCain's support for the Iraq war and fierce criticism of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won praise from Hagee, who has brought thousands of evangelical Christians to Washington to lobby on Israel's behalf.
Hagee has written that events in the Middle East point to an imminent apocalypse Christians should welcome.
In his book "Jerusalem Countdown: A Warning to the World," Hagee predicts Russian and Arab armies will invade Israel and be destroyed by God. Israel will then be the site of a battle between China and the West, which will be led by the anti-Christ in his role as head of the European Union. Jesus Christ will return to Earth in the final battle, he writes.
The book also claims Adolph Hitler and the Roman Catholic Church joined in a conspiracy to destroy the Jews.
"Our support of Israel has absolutely nothing to do with an end times prophetic scenario," Hagee told reporters. "They are a democracy in the Middle East that deserves the support of America and the Christian people of America."
McCain said on his campaign plane that he was not familiar with Hagee's writings. "I think he's a fine leader and I appreciate his commitment to Israel," McCain said.
(Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard in Dallas, editing by Patricia Zengerle)