For the social conservatives who knocked on doors and planted the yard signs and manned the phone banks to ensure Republican dominance in the past two presidential elections, the man preparing to accept the party's nomination this week is certainly no stranger. But he is somewhat of a puzzle.
Sen. John McCain boasts the right voting record and says the right things. But as the GOP gathers in St. Paul, Minn., for its national convention, which starts Monday, McCain has yet to inspire passion among the Christian evangelicals and other social conservatives who form the base of the Republican Party. He hasn't even consolidated their support.
Conservative leaders and rank-and-file activists alike say McCain must use this week's stage to "step outside of his comfort zone," as one prominent evangelical put it, and express with clarity and passion his beliefs and political support for the issues dear to their hearts, especially on abortion, gay marriage, and God's role in civil society.
Yet that is not the side of McCain that has carried him politically so far. Despite his conservative voting record, McCain has earned a reputation as something of a moderate thanks to his willingness to compromise with Democrats on some issues. That has helped win McCain the support of many independent voters, a group that buoyed his presidential ambitions when his own party seemed indifferent.
As McCain assumes the mantle of the Republican Party, activists say they are praying he shows the same attention to their principles as President Bush has.
"It's sort of a Charlie Crist experience for us," said Dennis Baxley of Ocala, an alternate delegate to the convention and head of the Christian Coalition of Florida, referring to the state's moderate Republican governor. "He's pro-life and he's for the national marriage amendment, but he's not … a champion for us on our big issues."
Colin A. Hanna, president of Let Freedom Ring, a grass roots group based in Pennsylvania, put it this way: "His voting record is greater than his heart. That's the way he's perceived. It's about enthusiasm — he's voted the right way, but he's never seen to have his heart into issues that are most important to social conservatives."
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If there ends up being a turning point for the better in McCain's troubled relationship with the right, it probably already happened. Two Saturdays ago, on Aug. 16, McCain and his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, participated in a forum at Saddleback Church, a megachurch led by pastor Rick Warren in San Clemente, Calif. It was a high-profile chance for both candidates to flash a little street cred to evangelicals.
While Obama struggled with questions such as when life begins, McCain spoke forcefully, saying, "I will be a pro-life president and this presidency will have pro-life policies."
Free of the ambiguity that has dogged him in the past regarding social issues, his performance won high marks among evangelical leaders and rank-and-file activists alike.
"Who watched Saddleback?" Grover Norquist, conservative uber-activist and president of Americans for Tax Reform, asked at his weekly gathering of fellow conservative heavy-hitters in Washington recently.
Hands shot up around the crowded room. Most of them clapped. Then one after another shared with the group how helpful it had been in convincing friends and family that McCain is one of them. Next to Norquist, Bob Heckman beamed.
Heckman, McCain's national director of conservative outreach, who has a reserved seat at Norquist's weekly roundtable, explained that just that morning, the campaign finished a video juxtaposing McCain and Obama's answers to some of Warren's questions. Many in the room nodded their approval.
The night of the forum, Heckman and his team also e-mailed video clips to several thousand evangelical leaders nationwide. Two days later, they sent a beefier packet of highlights and quotes to 70,000 conservative leaders and activists in 17 battleground states, including Florida. McCain's performance was widely praised in conservative media outlets and bulletins from advocacy groups, from the Christian Broadcasting Network to the National Review.
"McCain made big strides," Hanna said. "Is there 100 percent unanimous support? No. But he made enormous strides."
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The question, of course, is whether he can sustain it. This week's convention also offers McCain a chance to assure social conservatives that his presidency will not require the Republican Party to soften the principles they value, as well as the chance to express his support for those principles "of his own free will, not just because he was asked a question by a pastor," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. "His campaign right now, his support, is an issue of intensity, and it's not there."
McCain was praised widely Friday, including by Perkins, for choosing Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a pro-gun, antiabortion social conservative, as his running mate. "Those activists who are congenitally grumpy are happy," Norquist said.
But McCain has a history of falling into and out of the good graces of the right, winning laurels for voting for legislation restricting abortion, darts for voting for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Laurels for voting to limit government, darts for writing a bill with liberal Sen. Russ Feingold that limits the role of third-party groups in political campaigns.
To many in the conservative movement, McCain is emblematic of the Republican "Big Tent," the willingness to equivocate on core Republican values in order to win elections.
"The people who want to get away from guns, gays and God, what they're forgetting is that's where the passion is for conservatives," said Baxley, a former member of the Florida House.
This is McCain's challenge. He probably can't win without the muscular support of the right. Yet he is a formidable counter to Obama thanks largely to his appeal among independents and moderate Democrats, which comes in part from his willingness to compromise and his reluctance to engage in the culture wars.
Some conservative leaders, including Norquist, are trying to balance this by arguing, essentially, that perfect should not be the enemy of the good. McCain is unquestionably solid on gun rights, limited government and national defense, and he has pledged to appoint judges in the mold of conservative Justices John Roberts and Antonin Scalia.
Rep. Steve King, a leading conservative in the House, has been making the same argument in his home state of Iowa, a reliably red state that now is considered a tossup. At the state Republican Party's gathering this month, he flashed 50 pictures of liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg on a screen and warned that if Obama is elected, he'll appoint hundreds of jurists just like her. So get out there and plant some yard signs, he said.
"That's my motivation, and it'll be theirs," he said.