In unprecedented language for a serious Republican presidential candidate, John McCain lashed out Monday against leaders of the Christian conservative movement and called George W. Bush a “Pat Robertson Republican who will lose to Al Gore.”
The speech, delivered in the backyard of Robertson’s Christian Coalition just one day before Virginia’s primary, represented both an escalation of the religious tensions inside the GOP presidential race and an enormous political gamble for McCain.
Christian conservatives have become one of the largest voting blocs inside the GOP, casting as much as a third or more of the primary vote in many states. But McCain, who has seen these voters back Bush by 2 to 1 in South Carolina and Michigan, may be betting he can mobilize independents and moderate Republicans, especially in the Northeast and Midwest, bridling at the religious right’s influence in the party.
“I think McCain is looking beyond Virginia . . . to New York, New England and Ohio on how moderate and Catholic voters could unite behind his candidacy,” said Scott Reed, Bob Dole’s campaign manager in 1996. “The fact is he is trying to move his candidacy back into the middle as you go into Super Tuesday on March 7.”
With his pointed remarks, McCain is likely to both sharpen the ideological and geographical divisions in the GOP race, and even more important, raise to the surface long-simmering tensions between social conservatives and more secular elements in the GOP.
“This is more than just a throw of the dice,” said one senior Bush advisor. “This is a little bit of a burning down of the Republican Party on the way out.”
Indeed, after weeks of rising conflict between McCain and religious conservative leaders, the Arizona senator denounced both Robertson and fellow preacher Jerry Falwell in unequivocal terms. “Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance,” McCain said. “Whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left or Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell on the right.”
McCain added: “We are the party of Ronald Reagan, not Pat Robertson. We are the party of Theodore Roosevelt, not special interest. We are the party of Abraham Lincoln, not Bob Jones.”
McCain took pains to portray his remarks not as an attack on the religious conservative movement overall but only on a few of its leaders. To underscore that point, he was joined at his speech by Gary Bauer, a leading religious conservative and former GOP presidential candidate who has endorsed him.
Bush condemned McCain’s remarks after a rally in Bellevue, Wash. “It sounds like Sen. McCain has taken to name calling, needless name calling,” Bush said. “Ronald Reagan didn’t point fingers. He never played to people’s religious fears like Sen. McCain has shamelessly done.”
Delivered to an enthusiastic crowd of 2,500 at a high school here, the speech represented a dramatic turn for McCain.
Immediately after his victories in Michigan and Arizona last Tuesday, McCain tried to court Republican voters by terming himself a “Reagan conservative” and touting his support for tax reform, budget cuts and banning abortion. With this speech, though, he seemed to be acknowledging that his best hopes rest with moderate voters--Republicans, but also Democrats and independents--cool toward the religious conservative movement.
McCain advisors said the speech marked a new stage for his insurgent candidacy--one that could cast a huge shadow over the remaining weeks of the campaign. “It’s the defining speech of the campaign. It’s a defining moment for the party,” said John Weaver, McCain’s campaign director.
In purely political terms, the remarks constitute a gamble of the sort that few presidential candidates ever take. Perhaps the closest recent example was Bill Clinton’s criticism in 1992 of a black rap singer named Sister Souljah, who had been quoted after the Los Angeles riots suggesting African Americans should commit violence, not against other minorities but against whites. Clinton, however, chose a target at the periphery of the political world and delivered those comments only after he had clinched the Democratic nomination.
McCain, by contrast, chose the heat of the campaign to target the two most visible figures--Robertson and Falwell--in the movement that has become the single most reliable voting bloc for Republicans in presidential general elections.
After the speech, one senior McCain advisor said the campaign was essentially writing off the remaining Southern primaries, except for the prospect of “cherry-picking” delegates from individual congressional districts in states such as Florida, Tennessee and Georgia. McCain’s hope is that by taking such a strong stand against Robertson--an enormously polarizing figure--he can attract voters elsewhere who are socially moderate or simply prefer that the GOP focus on economic issues.
“Bush has already carved out turf as the Confederate candidate,” said one top McCain advisor. “He’s the candidate of the Deep South, and in staking out that turf he’s effectively ceding the rest of the country. This speech puts up a fence around him.”
In fact, though, religious conservatives exert a powerful influence in GOP primaries throughout the country, not just the deep South. More than a quarter of GOP presidential primary voters in 1996 classified themselves as members of the religious right in Illinois, Ohio, Florida, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and California. “You cannot win the Republican nomination . . . by kissing off a basic component of the Republican coalition,” insisted the senior Bush advisor. One sign of that danger came Monday, when McCain’s South Carolina co-chairman quit. Terry Haskins, speaker pro tem of the state House of Representatives and a Bob Jones graduate, said he was resigning from the campaign in protest over the senator’s repeated attacks on Bob Jones University.
Following McCain’s decision to skip a Times/CNN debate in Los Angeles on Thursday, the speech intensified speculation that the candidate has written off California to focus on New York--both of which will vote, along with several other states, on March 7.
McCain aides, however, emphatically deny that they are abandoning California, saying they have committed to spending more than $2 million on television advertising in the state and will campaign there three days both this week and next. Indeed, senior McCain advisors admit that, given their poor prospects in the South, winning a delegate majority without California will require them to “sweep the table of non-Southern states after California,” as one put it.
Still, some in both campaigns read Monday’s remarks as a sign that McCain no longer realistically hopes to beat Bush among GOP voters in California--a predominantly conservative bloc whose votes are the only ones that count in the winner-take-all competition for the 162 delegates. Three polls released over the weekend showed Bush maintaining a substantial lead over McCain among California Republicans.
Whatever the delegate result, McCain may also be hoping to win the state’s nonbinding “open primary,” in which the votes of independents and Democrats will also be counted. Such a victory could allow McCain to argue to voters that he would be more electable in the fall.
At a news conference after his speech, McCain argued that his remarks were directed only against certain people in the upper echelon of the Christian conservative movement, not against grass-roots members.
The speech marked a continued escalation of McCain’s conflict with religious conservative leaders over the last month. During the fight in Michigan, Robertson taped a phone message delivered to thousands of homes attacking former Sen. Warren B. Rudman, McCain’s national campaign co-chairman, as a bigot who had insulted Christian conservatives.
McCain fired back with taped phone messages to Roman Catholic voters in Michigan attacking Bush for appearing at Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., without repudiating its ban on interracial dating and anti-Catholic statements from some of its leaders.”
Times staff writer Robert A. Rosenblatt contributed to this story.
* PRESSURE ON BRADLEY
Bill Bradley could lose ground to John McCain in race for reform-minded swing voters. A16