McCain Confronts Conservative Hurdle

Republican presidential contender Sen. John McCain has all but cemented his party's nomination. But he faces opposition from the conservatives in his party. Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals speaks with NPR's Liane Hansen.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Last night the former Arkansas governor, Mike Huckabee, bested Arizona Senator John McCain in contests in both Kansas and Louisiana. Once again it showed that McCain faces a significant hurdle: the conservative wing of his own party.

Joining us is Richard Cizik, vice president of governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals. Welcome back to the show.

Mr. RICHARD CIZIK (Vice President, Governmental Affairs, National Association of Evangelicals): Thank you.

HANSEN: What about last night's results? I mean, you have conservative Republicans being split these days over McCain and now Mr. Huckabee has come on pretty strong.

Mr. CIZIK: Well, he certainly has. He's done this on his own without the support of the so-called religious right leaders. And it's not surprising actually. Because what has been occurring within the evangelical world that has led to his rise, is a change of agenda of sorts, but also an independence from the officials that are supposed to be the shepherds of the flock because they never supported him.

So he's done this by, well, merging a kind of, yes, moral vision with a social populism.

HANSEN: Let's step back now and hear from Senator McCain. He spoke about unifying the Republican Party this past week at the Conservative Political Action Conference. And here's a clip from that speech:

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona, Presidential Candidate): And I am acutely aware that I cannot succeed in that endeavor, nor can our party prevail over the challenge we will face from either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama, without the support of dedicated conservatives.

HANSEN: So Senator McCain knows he needs conservative support. How is he going to win over those conservative voters who seem to be sending him a message?

Mr. CIZIK: I think he has to show that he's listening, first of all. It'll be evident in the months ahead. He has actually identified with many of their concerns over the years. He is pro-life. He doesn't meet the litmus test of some, but he's been strongly behind the president's surge.

So many of these conservative evangelicals will come around in my opinion.

HANSEN: Even though the old guard dislikes him, distrusts him?

Mr. CIZIK: Oh, they've had antipathy to him as they have for Mike Huckabee. But these are independent voters. We're no longer the poor, uneducated and easy to command as we were once dubbed - evangelicals. Certainly not that anymore. And we don't follow just because somebody says, well, follow me.

HANSEN: There's been a lot of talk of Governor Huckabee running on the Republican ticket as vice president. What are you thoughts about that?

Mr. CIZIK: I do know that he has to reach out, that is McCain, and pull somebody onto the ticket who exemplifies the evangelical concerns. But then those concerns are broader. A Belief Net poll, for example, just this last week says that getting out of Iraq, the economy, a host of other issues, including, well, ending torture in America's CIA and elsewhere. These are issues that evangelicals care about and they're not the litmus test issues.

In fact, same-sex marriage was way down the list, as was abortion. So McCain can do this.

HANSEN: What about the younger evangelicals who might be centrists and Independents. Who do you think they might vote for in the general election?

Mr. CIZIK: Forty percent of evangelicals are up for grabs. They could easily go to Obama. And this is the fear that some in the Republican Party have. And they have a right to be afraid because, well, these evangelicals are off the so-called GOP reservation. They say we're not the wholly owned subsidiary of the GOP. The GOP is not God's own party, and so they're exercising their own independence.

And frankly they're going to look for character and integrity first, the philosophy of government second, and if a candidate happens to disagree with them lastly on this or that issue, that's not going to override what is a bigger sense they have or where the American nation needs to go.

HANSEN: Why does Senator Obama appeal to them?

Mr. CIZIK: Oh, fresh, young, vision, all those things, passion. No longer sort of us versus them, zero sum game kind of politics. He's a post-racial, he's even a post-religious right kind of candidate who says we're going to have a common vision for the common good. These are what - these are values that so many evangelicals, not just the young, now identify with.

HANSEN: Do you think it's likely that some might actually stay home on Election Day?

Mr. CIZIK: I doubt that. See, the old guard saying stick with the old issues, well, the candidates aren't even doing that, much less the voters. And they're saying, well, come with us, come under our litmus test issues or we'll stay home. Well, don't be threatened by that I would say to McCain or Obama. Don't do that.

The voters want leadership. They want to address issues that they've seen Washington not addressing, including issues like the environment. And so I think evangelicals are going to go with those who identify most with those values that they care about.

HANSEN: Who - what do you mean by the old guard?

Mr. CIZIK: Oh, I'm saying Pat Robertson, Jim Dobson.

HANSEN: Should - Senator McCain is the frontrunner right now. Should he become the nominee, his Democratic opponent right now, it's neck-and-neck between Senators Clinton and Obama. Which one would the Republicans prefer to see McCain face?

Mr. CIZIK: Oh, they would prefer McCain to face Hillary Clinton, certainly not Obama. So I'm not sure what's going to happen here. But let's face it, the conservative commentariot(ph), they weren't listening to the evangelicals back during the early primary days and they're not entirely listening now.

I happen to think that we have a new day, the evangelical movement have changed. The old guard, they no longer have the hold on believers. The rank and file is in fact sick of some of their strategy and tactics, and they're going to vote with their hearts. They did it with Huckabee, they'll continue to do so and they'll decide for themselves.

HANSEN: Richard Cizik is the vice president of governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, and he joined us in our studios. Thanks so much for coming in.

Mr. CIZIK: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You're listening to NPR News.

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