WASHINGTON — To forgive is divine. To forget may be asking too much of religious conservatives when it comes to Sen. John McCain.
The Republican presidential hopeful is working hard to repair relations with conservative Christian activists, whose support could be critical to winning the GOP nomination. But they remain skeptical that he sincerely shares their values.
While McCain has managed to pry open some of the doors that slammed shut in his rift with the right during his bid for the presidency in 2000, conservatives' list of grievances against the Arizona senator is substantial:
-They are dubious about his opposition to a federal amendment to ban gay marriage. McCain opposes same-sex marriage, but says it should be regulated by the states.
-They still resent passages in the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which Christian broadcasters say limit what they can tell voters before elections.
-And they question the sincerity of his overtures. McCain condemned evangelist leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as "agents of intolerance" during his 2000 run.
McCain's stumbling blocks
Christian leaders still have "a lot of questions" about McCain, said Paul Weyrich, who founded the Moral Majority with Falwell and pioneered efforts to mobilize evangelical voters.
McCain-Feingold "is a big stumbling block for all of us," Weyrich said. He and others also say McCain, a four-term Arizona senator, largely ignored a measure on the November ballot to ban gay marriage in his home state. Arizona was the only state where the effort failed in the last election.
"It seems to me that if he were really sincere, he would have gone in with both feet and supported that amendment," Weyrich said.
Focus on the Family founder James Dobson was more blunt.
"I would not vote for John McCain under any circumstances," Dobson said last month on KCBI, a Dallas Christian radio station. "I pray that we won't get stuck with him."
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McCain is trying hard to avoid a repeat of the 2000 GOP presidential primaries in which now-President Bush mobilized Christian conservative activists to ultimately sink McCain's campaign. Prominent Christian leaders, including Robertson and Falwell, opposed McCain in 2000, partly because they didn't feel he was conservative enough on their issues.
"We've continued to reach out to leaders in these very important states and communicate the senator's record of advocacy for conservative causes," said Danny Diaz, a spokesman for the McCain campaign. "What we've seen is a strong response and support."
Bob Jones University controversy defused
Contributing to McCain's strained relations with religious conservatives was his past criticism of the fundamentalist Christian college Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., for its ban on interracial dating. Political activists associated with the university helped defeat McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary.
The school has since lifted the ban. McCain now says he wouldn't turn down an opportunity to speak there.
He also has hired David Rexrode, a veteran campaigner who organized evangelical voters for the Bush/Cheney campaign in 2004, to help repair the damage.
McCain has made amends with Falwell. He spoke at Falwell's Liberty University last spring. On Monday, Falwell and five other religious leaders will host a "meet and greet" for McCain at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention in Orlando, Fla. - a big step, although Falwell has been careful to say it does not constitute an endorsement.
But other efforts aren't going as smoothly.
McCain has said he hopes to patch things up with Dobson, but Diaz wouldn't say whether Dobson and McCain have spoken. Dobson declined a request for an interview and a Focus on the Family spokesman said Dobson had nothing more to say about McCain.
Robertson also declined to discuss McCain.
McCain's seeming about-face with the Christian right also has drawn criticism from Democrats and eroded his image that appealed to swing voters in 2000.
In McCain's home state, Rep. Trent Franks - a staunch opponent of abortion and gay marriage - has split with the rest of the Republicans in the Arizona congressional delegation, refusing to back the senator's presidential bid. Instead, he's supporting a long-shot GOP candidate, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, whom he calls an "unequivocal social and fiscal conservative."
Picking your poison
But McCain has at least one thing going for him with the religious right: Christian leaders are also wary of the other leading GOP presidential hopefuls, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Giuliani supports abortion rights and gay rights. Romney has supported both in the past, although he now opposes abortion and gay marriage.
With no clear social conservative among the top-tier candidates, religious right leaders like the Iowa Christian Alliance's Steve Scheffler say they are now willing to at least give McCain a chance to explain himself.
That's a turnabout from last April, when Scheffler told The Associated Press, "There's no support for McCain in this constituency."
Since then, McCain has "made overtures to talk about his record," Scheffler said in a recent interview. "In many cases, he has a record conservatives would feel comfortable with."
Rexrode, McCain's organizer among Christian conservatives, said that's the kind of sentiment he's working for.
Despite what Dobson and others have said, when McCain explains his conservative record on abortion, the war in Iraq and federal spending, "we're winning people hand over fist," Rexrode said.
"Being able to deliver that message and talk about it is really opening some eyes about who the real Senator McCain is," he said.
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