If McCain loses, what next for conservatives?

DALLAS (Reuters) - If Republican John McCain loses the November 4 election as most polls predict, his party may be in for a rough period of soul searching.

Analysts and some party activists say losing the White House will highlight the pitfalls of relying too heavily on a narrow foundation of conservative Christians whose support has nonetheless become crucial to Republican electoral success.

But some social conservatives say a victory for Democrat Barack Obama, whom they regard as an “ultra-liberal,” will energize them for the 2010 congressional “mid-term” races and the 2012 White House battle.

The election is still over a week away and a lot can happen between now and then. McCain has staged huge comebacks before.

But almost every major poll has Obama with a commanding national lead as his campaign benefits from an unfolding financial crisis that has shaken America and knocked conservative red-meat issues like abortion and gay marriage off the political stage.

“An Obama victory will galvanize social conservatives for 2010 and 2012 and they will look for a standard bearer they can rally around,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of America’s largest evangelical group.

Land told Reuters the candidate most likely to “rally the troops” under an Obama administration looked to be McCain’s running mate Sarah Palin.

The Alaska governor has excited the evangelical base but her strident opposition to abortion rights and other hard-core

conservative positions have alienated more moderate voters.

William Donohue, president of the conservative Catholic League which opposes abortion rights, said religious conservatives were bracing for a new phase in the “culture wars.”

“I’ve been on the phone the last couple of days with some of my friends ... and we’re getting ready for the biggest culture war battles ever,” Donohue said.

“There is nobody in the history of the United States who has run for president who is a more enthusiastic supporter of abortion rights than Obama,” he said.

President George W. Bush took almost 80 percent of the white evangelical vote and was the favorite of many socially conservative Catholics during the 2004 election.

In fact religious conservatives have played a key role in every Republican victory since Ronald Reagan’s in 1980, which some analysts say shows the party cannot win without them.

Evangelicals account for one in four U.S. adults according to some estimates, giving them serious clout in a country where faith and politics often mix.


But Bush’s 2004 win was narrow, won in part on the use of issues like gay marriage to get the faith vote to the polls.

Moderate Republicans say a McCain loss will show the limits of that strategy and demonstrate that the party may not be able to win if it just focuses on pleasing the base without reaching for the center.

“Focusing on social conservatism alienates moderate and mainstream voters and will consign us to 160 House seats in the South and the mid-west,” said Patrick Sammon, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, a group of gay Republicans which stresses social tolerance and fiscal conservatism.

“We need members from across the political spectrum running as Republicans. (We) need to build a party based on the future, not the past,” he said.

That can be a delicate balancing act.

“Republicans must have the support of evangelicals but they can’t pursue them in too crass a way because when they do they alienate moderates,” said David Domke, a professor of communication at the University of Washington in Seattle who specializes in the “faith factor” in U.S. politics.

Some analysts also note that the evangelical movement itself is hardly monolithic as it broadens its agenda to include the fight against climate change and loses its harder edges on some social issues.

Polls show abortion and gay rights issues further down the list of evangelical priorities though substantial numbers still care deeply about these issues.

“Their tone will modulate - it will be essential for Republican victory in the years ahead,” said Michael Lindsay, a political sociologist at Rice University in Houston and an expert on evangelicals and politics.

Editing by Alan Elsner