06/17/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

McCain, Obama Battle Over Wary Evangelical Voters


More than the last two elections, the religious vote is up for grab between John McCain and Barack Obama. Recent problems from pastoral surrogates notwithstanding, McCain's frigid reception within the evangelical community and Obama's strong religious roots could combine to peel away a sizable number of voters from a presumed wing of the GOP base.

In case you hadn't heard, John McCain isn't exactly the dream candidate of evangelicals. As the general election gets underway, his camp faces the difficult task of courting his conservative base and alienating other voters:

One of Mr. McCain's biggest challenges as he faces a general election contest with Senator Barack Obama: a continued wariness toward him among evangelicals and other Christian conservatives, a critical voting bloc for Republicans that could stay home in the fall or at least be decidedly unenthusiastic in their efforts to get out the vote.

To address this, Mr. McCain's campaign has been ramping up its outreach to evangelicals over the last month, preparing a budget and a strategic plan for turning them out in 18 battleground states this fall....

Mr. McCain's outreach to Christian conservatives has been a quiet courting, reflecting a balancing act: his election hopes rely on drawing in the political middle and Democrats who might be turned off should he woo the religious right too heavily by, for instance, highlighting his anti-abortion position more on the campaign trail.

McCain has had a rocky relationship with evangelicals. He is still engaged in a stalemate with James Dobson, a key member of the religious right, which appears to some evangelicals as a snub to an important figure:

"I would not vote for John McCain under any circumstances," Dobson said in January 2007, adding, "I pray that we won't get stuck with him." After McCain clinched the nomination, however, Dobson privately invited him to Focus on the Family headquarters in Colorado Springs. When members of the Family Policy Council gathered there May 9 for an annual conference, word spread that McCain's campaign staff had rebuffed Dobson.

It was not that simple. The McCain campaign had responded that the senator would be in Denver on May 2 and would be happy to see Dobson in his hotel suite for a visit not limited by time. Dobson declined and asked McCain to come to Colorado Springs. McCain then also declined.

And after one year of seeking the endorsement of Rev. John Hagee (followed by three rocky months together), McCain eventually rejected the endorsement. He likely will still be paying the penalty for spurning the pastor's support:

Hagee tried to preempt McCain by withdrawing his endorsement, but the candidate beat him to the punch by disavowing him (along with another megachurch supporter, the Rev. Rod Parsley of Columbus, Ohio, because of harsh words about Islam). Hagee's phone lines were clogged with calls from worshipers asking whether they should vote for McCain. Hagee replies that he doesn't know but asserts to friends that McCain "threw me under the bus."

But McCain won't be on his own competing for religious voters. Barack Obama is looking to take advantage of McCain's soft support, and is already beginning his outreach:

The Obama campaign plans to add a full-time evangelical-focused staff member to its existing religious outreach team and is rolling out an effort over the summer to organize over a thousand house parties built around an hour-and-a-half-long curriculum on faith and politics. With the broadening of the evangelical agenda to include issues like poverty, global warming and AIDS, Mr. Obama's advisers hope to peel off more moderate evangelical voters.

David Brody, a political correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network, said he believed Mr. Obama's comments had hurt his chances among evangelicals, but he added, "I think Obama has a great opportunity still, with the Jeremiah Wright controversy behind him, to re-introduce himself with the American people, especially with his spiritual walk."

Of course, McCain does still have one advantage: a political surrogate with religious appeal who doesn't mind slandering former colleagues. According to Newsweek, Obama gave Joe Lieberman a piece of his mind on the Senate floor, particularly about the Connecticut senator implicit willingness to let smears against Obama fester:

In a brief but animated Senate floor confrontation last week, according to a campaign aide who asked for anonymity when talking about private discussions, Obama told Lieberman he was surprised by Lieberman's personal attacks and his half-hearted denials of the false rumors that Obama is a Muslim. (The aide says Lieberman was "strangely muted" during the exchange; a Lieberman spokesman says the chat was "private and friendly.") McCain spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker says Lieberman "played a key role in reaching out to the Jewish community in the primary ... and you can expect that will continue."

UPDATE: The Lieberman camp has responded to reports that Obama criticized Lieberman for not defending him against smears of being Muslim:

A Lieberman aide tells ABC News that "rather than being 'strangely muted' as the Obama staffer claimed - Lieberman responded to Obama that he always told anyone who raised this rumor that Obama is a Christian."

"If the Obama campaign thinks they are going to intimidate Joe Lieberman with these sleazy tactics then they are sorely mistaken," the Lieberman aide says.