updated 2/20/2007 1:36:14 PM ET 2007-02-20T18:36:14

Republican presidential candidate John McCain is defending his outreach to conservative Christians, arguing that his effort is not political pandering to win the GOP nomination.

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McCain met privately Monday with religious broadcasters in Orlando, Fla., then answered questions about his appeal to conservatives in Vero Beach.

In the 2000 campaign, McCain angered the party’s right by calling evangelist leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell “agents of intolerance.”

Last spring, he spoke at Falwell’s Liberty University although hard feelings still linger among some conservatives. Focus on the Family founder James Dobson has said he won’t support McCain.

“Nobody accused me of courting and pandering to the liberals when I went to the New School,” McCain told the crowd, a reference to the New York City school. “What I have found out in my life, is that every time I have done something for political reasons and not the right reasons, I have paid a very heavy price for it — a big price.”

The Arizona senator said he is trying to reach out to all elements of the party.

“I don’t know which part of the party is going to be more influential or not,” McCain said. “I’ve tried always in my political career to have a big tent party where a lot of people are welcome with differing views.”

Conservatives are a critical voting bloc in the GOP primaries.

The Rev. Patrick Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition said after McCain’s private meeting in Orlando that he helped repair damage with Christian conservatives.

“He recognized he cannot be president of the United States without reaching out to the evangelicals,” Mahoney said. “There definitely is an uneasy relationship between McCain and people of faith, but he is reaching out and he is breaking down those walls. He helped himself in that room tremendously today.”

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