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McCain Seeks to Harness Newfound Zeal among Evangelicals

David Finnigan and Adelle M. Banks | Religion News Service | Thursday, September 4, 2008

McCain Seeks to Harness Newfound Zeal among Evangelicals

September 4, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn. - Months of tepid -- even reluctant -- support among some evangelicals for Sen. John McCain's White House bid have exploded into a newfound sense of enthusiasm, generated in part by McCain's choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.

"They will rally to the banner now," said Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Republican who represents the evangelical epicenter of Colorado Springs. "It reassures people that John McCain is listening to conservatives."

The challenge in the next two months, however, will be maintaining that support and harnessing the nationwide network of evangelical activists that until recently had been suspicious of -- if not outright hostile to -- McCain.

And while McCain has won some converts in recent weeks, he still faces a stiff challenge from Sen. Barack Obama, who's seeking to peel off moderate-minded evangelicals, and complaints from some Christian leaders that they have yet to receive a get-to-know-you visit from the campaign.

Still, delegates at the Republican National Convention here said they detect a freshly minted willingness among grass-roots conservatives to do the grinding work of turning out the vote -- knocking on doors, making phone calls, convincing the undecided.

Until recent weeks, religious conservatives "were gonna vote Republican but they weren't gonna do it with much excitement," said Randy Russell, an alternate delegate from Mississippi. "They weren't gonna bring other people along."

Most credit two moves by McCain -- picking Palin, with her strong anti-abortion credentials; and his appearance last month at Rick Warren's California megachurch, where he came down strongly against gay marriage and abortion.

"It's not because John McCain changed," said Marlys Popma, who oversees evangelical outreach for the McCain campaign. "It's because they heard John McCain from his own mouth."

Now, Russell said, "they won't just vote, they're gonna volunteer. They're gonna tell their friends and neighbors. You don't have to vote with reservation, you can vote and feel good about it."

According to polls, evangelical support was at best lukewarm. Or, as Traditional Values Coalition president Lou Sheldon (himself a supporter of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney) put it bluntly, "Many people were never excited about John McCain."

One of them was Focus on the Family Action founder James Dobson, who had earlier said flatly that he would not vote for McCain. But after Palin and the warm reception at Warren's Saddleback Church, Dobson spokesman Gary Schneeberger said "if the election were held today, he (Dobson) could pull the lever for John McCain."

A poll conducted between July 31 and Aug. 10 by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life -- before the appearance at Warren's church and the Palin pick -- showed that just 28 percent of evangelicals would "strongly" back McCain, and another 40 percent would do so, but "not strongly."

The Pew poll also showed that among white evangelical voters, 30 percent were registered Democrats (up 2 points from 2004), while 62 percent were Republicans, down 4 points from four years ago.

The two-fold challenge for McCain will be fending off the challenge for evangelicals from Obama, while also motivating his newfound supporters to bring in votes. Former presidential candidate Gary Bauer says it can be done.

"Volunteers, envelope stuffers, e-mailers, the kind of heart and soul activities you need in a campaign, that problem has been solved," he said. "I think the problem for the campaign is how they're gonna channel all that and organize it over the next 60 days to get the best use from it."

Ironically, what may be the biggest headache for McCain's campaign this week -- the disclosure that Palin's unwed teenage daughter is pregnant -- seems to have helped rally evangelicals around McCain's running mate.

"In fact, Governor Palin is doing exactly what any responsible parent would do, and that is to stand by her daughter, and her daughter has made the right decision to not abort her child," said Mathew Staver, dean of Liberty University School of Law, founded by the late Jerry Falwell.

For its part, the McCain campaign says it plans to redouble outreach to evangelicals, including expanded online materials on McCain's positions on abortion, marriage, AIDS and the environment -- and clips of his appearance at Saddleback.

"We want to make sure people understand and know that John McCain hits on all cylinders," said Popma, McCain's evangelical outreach director, "for both the movement conservatives and the young evangelicals."

Still, it's clear that some work remains undone.

While McCain has met with evangelists Billy and Franklin Graham, and lesser-known leaders like Phil Burress of the Ohio-based Citizens for Community Values, he has not yet met with leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals. Obama did that more than two months ago.

"We've asked on a number of occasions to put together a meeting with evangelicals; it's not happened," said NAE Vice President Richard Cizik, who attended the June meeting with Obama. "It's pretty clear the Obama outreach has exceeded that of the McCain campaign."

(David Finnigan reported from St. Paul; Adelle M. Banks reported from Washington.)

Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. Used by permission. All rights reserved.