FORT WORTH, Texas (Reuters) - Pundits have long said he can’t win without them and now it seems that U.S. Republican presidential contender John McCain may finally be wooing his party’s evangelical base.
McCain spoke directly to this base at a “civil forum” on Saturday hosted by influential California mega pastor Rick Warren, who spent an hour prodding Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and then McCain with questions related to morality and leadership.
McCain, an Arizona senator and war hero, hit the right political buttons before a nationally televised audience and thousands at Warren’s massive Saddleback Church, stressing the emphatic opposition to abortion rights that is his trump card with social conservatives.
Religious conservatives said the performance gave him a lift at a time when polls also show him gaining ground with the Republican base.
“On the issue of abortion he didn’t hesitate and he went on to say that he would be a pro-life president ... He also said he was a sinner,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative lobby group based in Washington with strong evangelical ties.
“It gives McCain a bounce. Most social conservatives want to know that he has a faith in God, but what they are looking for is where that leads him to stand on the issues,” Perkins, a leading figure in the “Religious Right,” told Reuters.
As many as one in four U.S. adults count themselves as evangelical Christians, giving the movement serious electoral clout in a country where faith and politics often merge.
Conservative evangelicals have become a vital element of the Republican Party with a strong focus in the past on opposition to abortion and gay rights.
Such issues helped deliver almost 80 percent of the white evangelical Protestant vote to President George W. Bush in 2004, underscoring their importance to the party.
But evangelism is more fractured now, in part because of conservative dissatisfaction with McCain, in part because of a broadening of its agenda by some leaders such as Warren to embrace issues such as the environment, AIDS and poverty.
But there are signs McCain is winning over a group that has regarded him with suspicion on grounds including his past criticism of Religious Right leaders and his support for stem cell research.
A nationwide poll of registered voters by the Pew Research Center from July 31 to August 10 found McCain had the support of 68 percent of the white evangelical Protestants surveyed, up from 61 percent in June.
Obama’s support was almost unchanged at 24 percent — an indication McCain is making headway with undecided voters in the group.
A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll, taken July 27 to 29, showed that among white voters who described themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians, 67 percent backed McCain, with 24 percent for Obama.
“It’s important to keep in mind that while McCain has had some differences with evangelical leaders in the past, he has reached out to them,” said Scott Keeter, an analyst with the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
“He is strongly pro-life and so on this signature social issue he is very consistent with evangelical perspectives,” Keeter said.
McCain has other appealing qualities in the eyes of evangelicals, including his military service during the Vietnam conflict where he was a prisoner-of-war and unflinching support for the Iraq War.
“The campaign is starting to look more like 2004 than we expected it to look like. The map still favors Obama but McCain has made some gains the last six weeks,” said David Domke, a professor of communication at the University of Washington in Seattle and expert on religion and U.S. politics.
Conservative attacks on Obama, who would be the country’s first black president, are also stepping up and may boost McCain in the heartland.
At a huge hunting show in Fort Worth this weekend, the booth run by the National Rifle Association passed out flyers detailing why Obama could not be trusted on the Second Amendment, which the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled gave individual Americans the right to possess firearms.
Jerome Corsi, the author who helped “swift boat” Democratic Sen. John Kerry by belittling his Vietnam War military record during the 2004 presidential campaign, has turned his attention on Obama.
“The Obama Nation” by Corsi questions whether Obama could still be using drugs and insinuates that the Illinois Senator is Muslim even though Obama is a Christian.
Conservatives have also targeted Obama’s pro-abortion rights stance, though he and his party were lauded this past week by more centrist evangelicals and Catholics for stressing the need to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies.
Editing by David Wiessler