After enduring criticism for weeks, John McCain broke Thursday with two controversial televangelists whose endorsements he once trumpeted in a bid to win support from religious conservatives.
At a late-afternoon rally in Stockton, McCain said he rejected the endorsement of John Hagee after learning of a recording in which the San Antonio pastor portrayed Adolf Hitler as being sent by God to force Jews "to come back to the land of Israel."
McCain said he had not been aware of the comments -- which were made in a sermon in the late 1990s and turned up recently on the Internet -- when Hagee endorsed him in February. "I just think that the statement is crazy and unacceptable," McCain said. The pastor's words, he added, "are just too much."
Later in the day, McCain told the Associated Press that he also repudiated the support of Rod Parsley, an Ohio preacher who has sharply criticized Islam and called the religion inherently violent. "I believe there is no place for that kind of dialogue in America," McCain said.
McCain, who is viewed with suspicion by many conservatives in the Republican Party, had actively sought endorsements from evangelicals. He has had a rocky relationship with evangelical leaders, notably calling Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell "agents of intolerance" in the 2000 presidential campaign.
His experience with Hagee's endorsement, which drew even more criticism than Parsley's, recalled the controversy that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama confronted after incendiary sermons made by his former pastor became public. After the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. made similar comments in an appearance in Washington, Obama strenuously disavowed them and severed ties with his longtime mentor.
As McCain in recent weeks began distancing himself from Hagee, many Obama supporters complained that news outlets were paying more attention to Wright's statements.
In Stockton, McCain said he did not think the comparison was fair. "I've never been in Pastor Hagee's church or Pastor Parsley's church. I didn't attend their church for 20 years, and I'm not a member of their church. I received their endorsement, which did not mean that I endorsed their views."
Obama, campaigning in Florida, responded: "John McCain has to deal with Hagee, who said something that is mind-boggling. I don't attribute those statements to John McCain. Nobody thinks McCain believes that stuff."
McCain was in California on Thursday on a campaign trip. He participated in a business roundtable with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and vowed he would "compete and win" in the Golden State. At the rally later, he drew laughter when he mocked Obama, saying that "for a young man with very little experience, he's done very well."
In the sermon that led to the break with McCain, Hagee was giving a theological interpretation of the developments that led to Jews founding the state of Israel 60 years ago. Hagee cited Jeremiah 16:15 and referred to God sending "a hunter."
"A hunter is someone with a gun, and he forces you," Hagee said. "Hitler was a hunter. . . . How did it happen? Because God allowed it to happen. Why did it happen? Because God said, 'My top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel.' "
On Thursday, Hagee released a statement saying he was "tired of these baseless attacks" and was withdrawing his endorsement. Hagee, who heads a group called Christians United for Israel, said critics were "grossly misrepresenting my position on issues most near and dear to my heart."
Hagee infuriated many Catholics with past remarks referring to the Catholic Church as a "false cult system" and the "great whore." Hagee also suggested Hurricane Katrina was God's answer to a "level of sin" that God found offensive and linked the devastating storm to a gay parade scheduled about the same time.
McCain dismissed the remarks as "nonsense" when he visited New Orleans.
However, he had said he was pleased when Hagee apologized to the Catholic League in a letter last week, and the group said it accepted the apology.
J.J. Goldberg, editorial director of the weekly Jewish newspaper Forward, said McCain might have concluded that the controversial endorsements were starting to cost him more votes than they were bringing in -- and could damage the Republican's attempts to make inroads among Jewish voters.
A Gallup Poll Daily survey released May 7 found that, in a head-to-head contest, Obama would edge McCain 61% to 32% among Jewish voters. Still, for a Republican to win nearly 1 in 3 Jewish votes would be a good showing, given the historically strong loyalties Jews have had to the Democratic Party.
McCain, Goldberg said, is likely to fare best among conservative Jews who are worried about Obama's approach to foreign policy. "The people that he needs, or that he's counting on from the Jewish community -- it's only a fragment -- are precisely the people who are the most likely to jump out of their skins when they hear 'Hitler,' " he said.
Goldberg said McCain might not have felt the need to reject Hagee's support after his comments about the Catholic Church came to light, but acted now because Jews could be "more easily offended" due to the memory of the Holocaust.
"It's not like Catholics hear a slur and immediately envision mass annihilation, but that's exactly what happens in the Jewish community," he said. "It's not based on delusion but based on fairly recent experience."
After McCain split with Hagee, religious organizations offered sharply varying reactions.
The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Washington-based Interfaith Alliance, said he was happy McCain "did what he had to do." Gaddy, whose organization advocates keeping electoral politics separate from organized religion, said "when politicians and religious leaders try to use each other, both of them usually get hurt."
But Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, said he found it "noble" that Hagee decided to sever his ties to McCain. "He knows he has become a liability to McCain, even after he has made amends to Catholics," he said.
Donohue said Hagee visited him a week ago, after the pastor's remarks about the Catholic Church caused controversy.
"I found him to be sincere, apologetic and friendly," Donohue said. "I also found him to be the strongest Christian defender of Israel I have ever met, and that is why attempts to portray him as anything but a genuine friend to Jews -- one for whom the Holocaust is the horror of horrors -- is despicable."