John McCain hasn’t sealed the deal yet with many evangelical voters, a group that may make up about one-third of the Republican Party’s activist base.
“It’s not that evangelicals are abandoning McCain,” says Corwin Smidt, director of the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.
“It’s just that the evangelicals haven’t really become as enthusiastic for McCain at this point as they were for (George W.) Bush in the previous two elections.”
The Arizona senator met privately last Sunday with evangelist Billy Graham and his son, the Rev. Franklin Graham, at McCain’s request.
But he has yet to meet with James Dobson, the head of Focus on the Family, who said last year he would not vote for McCain under any circumstances.
McCain also angered some by rejecting the support of two conservative preachers because of anti-Catholic and anti-Muslim views they expressed. And he doesn’t appear as comfortable talking about his faith in public as President Bush or Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee.
“He has a tin ear for the evangelical community,” Michael Gerson, a former top Bush aide, said at a May conference on religion and politics sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
McCain was not the choice of social conservatives during the Republican presidential primaries and faces the additional challenge of energizing a discouraged GOP base.
“It’s very important to develop strong grass-roots support which can help deliver on Election Day,” says former Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind. “And I think we have a ways to go on this. This is no secret.”
Among social conservatives, McCain faces questions about his record on some social issues as well as his advocacy over changes to campaign finance rules.
Coats says many people are surprised when he tells them the National Right to Life Committee praises McCain’s “strong pro-life voting record.” McCain has mostly voted with the group’s positions on abortion, although he has not been particularly outspoken about it.
McCain also voted to allow federally funded embryonic stem cell research, which the National Right to Life Committee opposes. And he angered the influential group with his campaign finance legislation that placed restrictions on political ads funded by interest groups.
Indiana GOP National Committeeman James Bopp, an attorney for the National Right to Life Committee, was an adviser to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s presidential primary campaign.
However, Bopp says he is now “very strong” for McCain.
“I certainly am sharing my views on the importance of getting behind McCain for the general election,” he says.
“People just have to realize there’s nothing perfect in this world. There’ll never be any candidate that shares all your views but one or the other is going to be president, so you want one that shares as many views as possible.”
Obama also is courting religious voters. He sat down last month with a group of religious leaders that included Franklin Graham, the vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Steve Strang, the head of a major Christian publishing company.
Strang wrote on his blog afterward that Obama came across as “thoughtful and much more of a ‘centrist’ than what I would have expected.”
“I think McCain,” Strang wrote, “has a lot of work to do to get the support of the Christian community.”