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Preston on Politics: Can McCain win over social conservatives?

  • Story Highlights
  • Polling shows Sen. John McCain making inroads with evangelical voters
  • Mark Preston: McCain may have stumbled this week with social conservatives
  • McCain refused to rule out running mate who's for abortion rights
  • McCain camp downplays any talk of weakness with social conservatives
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By Mark Preston
CNN Political Editor
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Sen. John McCain stood before a gathering of social conservatives here last fall and acknowledged that he had some work to do to convince them to support his presidential campaign.

Sen. John McCain's campaign has downplayed any rumors of discontent among evangelical voters.

Sen. John McCain's campaign has downplayed any rumors of discontent among evangelical voters.

"I know that before I can win your vote, I have to win your respect," McCain told attendees of the Family Research Council's Values Voter Summit.

At the time, McCain was in a tense battle for the Republican presidential nomination, and support from every corner of the GOP base was needed. He was received politely by the audience, but when the Values Voter Summit held its straw poll to gauge support for the nine Republican presidential candidates, McCain landed in last place.

Ten months later and the GOP nomination all but in hand, polling shows that McCain is making inroads with white, evangelical voters. But there still seems to be a lack of intense interest in his candidacy among these grass-roots activists, who not only vote but can provide invaluable volunteer manpower in key battleground states in the closing weeks of a campaign.

"There is very little enthusiasm for McCain with people I network with," said Mike Farris, chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association. Farris, who is able to activate a vast network of home-schoolers to work on behalf of a candidate, said he won't vote for presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama, but he remains undecided about whether to back McCain.

There is really no one overarching reason why McCain has failed to attract overwhelming support from social conservatives as George W. Bush did in 2000 and again in 2004.

He seems to be on the right side of most of their issues, namely abortion. But for some social conservatives there is lingering resentment from the 2000 presidential campaign when McCain described Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as "agents of intolerance."

Others are angry over McCain's campaign finance legislation that many social conservatives felt infringed on their constitutional right to free speech. And still others do not agree with his position on stem-cell research.

"His voting record on social conservative issues, for the most part, is good," said William Murray, chairman of the Religious Freedom Coalition. "It is a matter of enthusiasm. He is a hard guy to get enthusiastic about and why, I just don't know."

In some cases, it may be indifference because, well, McCain doesn't pay that much attention to social conservatives or speak often about the issues that are important to them.

"He hasn't done anything to offend; he's just ignored them and they don't like to be ignored," said Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the Eagle Forum, who added she will vote for McCain.

With the election being counted in days and not months, there is a growing consensus in the social conservative movement that if McCain does not act fast to strengthen support within the community these voters may choose to stay home rather than show up for him on Election Day.

"I think if he wants to re-create the intensity that has been within the base in the last two election cycles, which I think personally you are going to need to win, I think he has to make social issues a part of his political portfolio that he talks about," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. Video Watch Mark Preston's interview with Tony Perkins »

For its part, the McCain campaign downplays any talk that he has a weakness with social conservatives, saying that the senator from Arizona has the voting and legislative record that appeals to social conservatives.

"Our belief is that during ... the remainder of the general election, we will be able to make a compelling case as to why people of faith and Christians in this country do have very compelling reasons to vote for and support John McCain," said McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds.

It appears this week though that McCain might have stumbled, at least in the eyes of some social conservatives. His refusal to rule out an pro-abortion rights running mate in an interview with the Weekly Standard did not help him. Perkins fired off a note to the Family Research Council e-mail list sharply criticizing McCain.

"Beyond the choice of his running mate, Sen. McCain's comments raise questions about the type of individuals he would appoint to other important positions like HHS secretary and even judgeships," Perkins wrote.

Still, Gary Bauer, a prominent social conservative leader and McCain supporter, said he thinks that come Election Day social conservatives will show up for McCain.

"As it becomes clearer and clearer that a Barack Obama administration would be a disaster, the numbers will be there," said Bauer, a former presidential candidate in 2000 who is now president of American Values.

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Still Bauer, too, said that McCain should make a greater effort to connect with social conservatives.

"I think it would be to his advantage to speak more to those kinds of voters, and when I think he does that, he always does very well," Bauer said. "I think we will see him do more of that as we go through this year."

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