John McCain has never been the best friend of Christian conservatives, but to win the presidency, especially in today's political environment, he will need their help. In 2004, 23 percent of all voters identified themselves in exit polls as white evangelical or born-again Christians, and President Bush won 78 percent of them.
It is a group McCain has sought to make inroads with the last few years. He started in 2006, backing off a statement from his 2000 presidential bid that Jerry Falwell was one of politics' "agents of intolerance" and giving the commencement address at the pastor's Liberty University.
But since locking up the Republican nomination in February, McCain has largely stuck to issues more palatable to moderates and swing voters, talking repeatedly about the rise in oil prices, the nation's economy and foreign policy. While Barack Obama has given a number of high-profile addresses from church pulpits, McCain is far more likely to be found touring manufacturing facilities. He has recently made several campaign stops at auto plants, learning about new energy technologies that can reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil.
But at the same time, McCain and his staff have been quietly reaching out to cultural conservatives. In Cincinnati on Thursday, McCain sat down with a half-dozen Christian leaders, many of whom were critical of him as a primary candidate.
Their message for him: Speak louder and longer about social issues and your values.
"We made it very clear to him that if he doesn't start speaking on family issues, he's going to lose Ohio," said Phil Burress, president of Citizens for Community Values. "He needs to make the issues he agrees with us on very clear."
While attendees praised the campaign's outreach to small groups of conservative leaders, they told McCain he needed to thrust his social agenda to the forefront. He can't just say it once and then move on, they emphasized.
Many Christian leaders have openly questioned whether they would vote for McCain, and few Christian conservatives backed his primary bid. James Dobson, the head of Focus on the Family, said in February that he would not vote for McCain as a "matter of conscience."
"I am convinced Senator McCain is not a conservative and in fact has gone out of his way to stick his thumb in the eyes of those who are," Dobson said then. "He has at times sounded more like a member of the other party."
The leaders McCain met with Thursday said his record is stronger than many perceive, and several likened the gap between him and Obama to the Grand Canyon. But, they said, he needs to do more to herald his support of their issues. "He's not getting out what he stands for when it comes to conservatives," Burress said. "The voters are definitely stagnant right now."
The leaders left the room feeling more comfortable with McCain, but several said afterwards that he had not yet closed the deal.
One of McCain's reassurances, they said, was that he would talk about his opposition to abortion and support for state initiatives to ban same-sex marriage. "He pledged to us we'd hear a lot more from him and that he'd be speaking his voice on these issues," said Mike Gonidakis, executive director of Ohio Right to Life.
But the next day, at a town hall meeting in Youngstown, Ohio, McCain continued to tout energy independence rather than social values. His upcoming schedule -- trips to Columbia and Mexico and talk of rolling out a post-July 4 economic plan -- suggests more of the same.
That doesn't mean his goodwill tour is over, however. McCain continued his visits with Christian leadership on Sunday, making a pilgrimage to the revered evangelist Billy Graham's home outside of Asheville, N.C. Originally, McCain was to meet just with Graham's son, Franklin, but the elder Graham joined the visit.
McCain said Sunday that he asked for the visit because they had known his family for years -- Billy Graham traveled to Hawaii to pray with McCain's parents when he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Graham also called the McCain family "great leaders of this nation." McCain insisted Sunday that the meeting was not political, and that he did not ask for the Grahams' support. But the photo of McCain sandwiched between the two was enough to imply that McCain had won the good graces of at least two evangelicals.
It's worth noting that when Obama met with Franklin several weeks ago, the elder Graham did not attend. Franklin said after the meeting with McCain that the family would not be providing an endorsement, but that the Grahams and McCain prayed for "God's will to be done in the upcoming election."