McCain's speech at Falwell's school is key

Senator makes peace with evangelicals

By George E. Condon Jr.

May 13, 2006

WASHINGTON – The first major speech of the 2008 presidential campaign comes today when Sen. John McCain gives the commencement address at Liberty University, the home turf of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a man he once branded as evil.

McCain's speech to the school's graduating class is the most public sign yet of an effort by the Arizona Republican to make political peace with the conservative evangelicals, still angry over his biting criticism of their “self-appointed leaders” six years ago during his first run for president.

It also represents a shift for McCain, who long has defended his decision in the heat of that 2000 campaign to deliver an attack on those leaders so critical to success in Republican primaries.

His comments were made in Virginia Beach, Va., near the headquarters of the Rev. Pat Robertson.

At the time, McCain singled out Robertson and Falwell, the founder of the Moral Majority, as “agents of intolerance” who are “corrupting influences on religion and politics” and who “shame our faith, our party and our country.”

McCain then made evangelical activists even angrier the next day by saying that Robertson and Falwell exercised an “evil influence” over the Republican Party.

But now, six years later, McCain and Falwell are trying to put that behind them.

With McCain as the early favorite in the GOP's 2008 contest to replace President Bush, Falwell extended an olive branch when he called McCain on Sept. 20.

At the end of the talk, Falwell invited McCain to be the commencement speaker atLiberty, the school he founded in Lynchburg, Va., in 1971. It has grown to 23,000 students.

McCain accepted, sparking some criticism that the famed political “straight shooter” was compromising his principles. But with evangelicals making up 40 percent of Bush's vote in 2004 and about one-third of the Republican primary vote, most Republican strategists have praised the move.

“This is reality, and even a straight shooter has to play a little politics along the way,” said Neil Thigpen, who teaches political science at Francis Marion University in South Carolina, an early primary state where evangelical voters hold considerable sway.

“I don't think he should be chastised for making some effort, because these people are important in those primaries. He doesn't need much of that. All he needs is some of it,” said Thigpen, who is also a supporter of McCain.

McCain's chances of winning would be hurt if he did not make peace with the activists in the evangelical community, according to John C. Green, a professor at the University of Akron who is considered the leading expert on evangelical voting behavior.

“At a minimum, you don't want them hostile and united against you. But beyond that, you'd like to be able to have some purchase with that community because that is an awful lot of votes,” Green said.

Republican pollster Whit Ayres, an expert on South Carolina, said the Liberty speech could be seen as a critical step for McCain.

“I don't know if it ends the enmity, but it certainly helps the healing process,” he said. “ . . . And it's a smart thing to do.”

Dan Schnur, who was on McCain's staff in 2000, went beyond that assessment.

“It is not only smart, but it is necessary,” he said. “This is the difference between being an insurgent and being the nominee. It's the difference between being a maverick and being president.”

Both Falwell and McCain have been cautious in their public statements about their efforts to patch things up. McCain grew testy when pressed on the topic on “Meet the Press” last month.

He described his Liberty speech as “no different” from his other commencement addresses. Asked if he still sees Falwell as an agent of intolerance, he replied, “No, I don't. I think that Jerry Falwell can explain to you his views on this program when you have him on.”

But he added, “I spent a lot of time burning bridges early in . . . my political life. Now, I work to try to build bridges.”

Falwell has gone to great lengths to insist that he has offered McCain only an invitation and not an endorsement. In an article he wrote for The New York Times last week, he said he called McCain in September “to put aside any past misunderstandings,” adding, “We did not ask for apologies from each other, nor were any offered.”

The rapprochement particularly pleases Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine.

Hunter was one of only nine House members to endorse McCain in 2000, but he voiced a strong objection then to McCain's attack on the evangelical leaders. “I was not happy with that speech. I like Jerry Falwell,” he said. “It's good that (McCain) is going to Liberty.”

Indications from McCain's staff were that the Liberty speech would differ little from the addresses he will give at other schools such as Ohio State University, and would not be tailored with special religious pitches.

That should limit any damage to McCain with more moderate voters, Green said.

“The fact that he is giving the speech is more important than what he says,” said Schnur, the former McCain campaign aide. “He could stand up there and recite the roster of the Arizona Diamondbacks and it would still be the most important thing that has happened in the campaign to date.”

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