John McCain has long rankled social conservatives with his stance on issues such as campaign finance reform and support for some embryonic stem cell research. On Tuesday, he sought to reassure those voters of his conservative credentials as he outlined his philosophy for appointing judges to the federal bench.
In an address at Wake Forest University, McCain pledged to nominate jurists who believe "there are clear limits to the scope of judicial power" and who are "faithful in all things to the Constitution of the United States."
McCain added that he would choose nominees with "a proven record of excellence in the law, and a proven commitment to judicial restraint."
By way of example, McCain said he would look for people in the cast of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., and his friend the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. He called them "jurists of the highest caliber who know their own minds, and know the law, and know the difference."
Some Democratic leaders immediately denounced McCain's speech. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, accused McCain of pandering to the far right. Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement that McCain voted for every one of President Bush's activist judges and said McCain "promises hundreds more just like them."
The president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion rights group, said McCain was speaking in code to abortion opponents by signaling he would appoint justices who favored overturning the abortion rights decision Roe vs. Wade.
Conservatives, however, found much to like in the speech, which was viewed as an important step for McCain in energizing the base for the fall election. Though the Arizona senator has been a consistent and reliable vote on Republican nominees, he angered conservatives in 2005 when he led a bipartisan group of senators -- known as the Gang of 14 -- that forestalled a Republican-backed rule change that would have made it more difficult for Democrats to block Bush's stalled nominees.
But because of other shared views, the issue of judges could become a bridge to social conservatives for McCain, said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. "Conservatives want judges who will not legislate from the bench, because when we allow judges to legislate from the bench we get abortion on demand, we get same-sex marriage, we get everything that's bad for society."
Edward Whelan, a former law clerk for Justice Antonin Scalia and president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said he was encouraged by McCain's assertion that the role of judges was "one of the defining issues of this presidential election."
Whelan noted that McCain's promise to nominate judges with a "proven record" would be an important point with conservative Republicans. Some felt betrayed by Bush's nomination of White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers, who was viewed as having no track record, and many have been disappointed by the rulings of Justice David H. Souter.
Introduced at Wake Forest's Wait Chapel by conservative heavyweight Theodore Olson, the former solicitor general, McCain railed against "activist judges" who have ruled on issues "never intended to be heard in courts or decided by judges."
McCain also contrasted his judicial philosophy with that of his Democratic opponents. Though Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama opposed Roberts, McCain criticized the criteria Obama articulated for evaluating judicial nominees as a vague "attempt to justify judicial activism."
McCain clearly was not targeting the independent and conservative Democratic voters he has courted assiduously in recent weeks -- his remarks came on a day when many voters were more focused on the Democratic contests in Indiana and North Carolina.
But within his own party, Curt Levey, the head of the conservative Committee for Justice, predicted the speech would not only resonate with the base but with Republicans "who really did have concerns about the Gang of 14 and whether McCain's support for campaign finance reform might influence who he chose."
Staff writer David G. Savage contributed to this report.