McCain Reaches out to Religious Conservatives

Republican senator and likely 2008 presidential candidate John McCain gave the commencement address Saturday at the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. In the 2000 GOP primaries, McCain took on religious conservatives. This time around he is reaching out to these former foes.

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Republican Senator John McCain delivered the commencement address yesterday at Liberty University, the evangelical Christian school founded by Jerry Falwell. McCain, a likely 2008 presidential candidate, is trying to repair relations with Christian conservatives, some of whom he alienated during his last presidential run.

NPR's Adam Hochberg was in Lynchburg, Virginia, for the ceremony.

Reverend JERRY FALWELL (Liberty University Founder): Our prayers go with you, this great faculty here...

ADAM HOCHBERG reporting:

As John McCain appeared before Liberty University's 2,400 graduates, there was little evidence of the senator's past problems with the religious right. McCain stood side by side with Reverend Falwell, a man he once lambasted in a campaign speech as evil. The two exchanged smiles and handshakes and McCain was conciliatory in his address.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Let us exercise our responsibilities as free people. But let us remember we are not enemies. We have nothing to fear from each other.

HOCHBERG: McCain and Falwell had their public rift six years ago, during the senator's presidential primary campaign against George W. Bush. Falwell accused McCain of selling out to liberals by taking weak stands on social issues like abortion. McCain responded by calling Falwell and fellow Evangelist Pat Robertson agents of intolerance.

McCain later backed away from some of his remarks, but not before many evangelical voters backed away from him. Yesterday, the senator didn't mention that dispute, but said Americans should respect each other as they debate the issues of the day.

Sen. McCAIN: It should remain an argument among friends, each of us, despite our differences, united in our great cause and respectful of the goodness in each other. I have not always heeded that injunction myself and I regret it very much.

HOCHBERG: McCain's graduation appearance came about after Falwell approached the senator late last year, as McCain emerged as a frontrunner for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. Falwell offered to reconcile, noting that while the two still have their differences, he felt McCain deserved a chance to mend fences with conservative Christians.

Political analysts say McCain desperately needs Christian support if he hopes to win GOP primaries, especially in the Bible Belt South. Jim Guth is a professor at Furman University and studies religion and politics.

Professor JIM GUTH (Professor, Furman University): In 2004, in the presidential election, evangelical Protestants comprised 40 percent of the Republican presidential vote. And those people are even more important in some of the early primary states, as Senator McCain found out. And I think he's just exhibiting a good bit of political realism by making an approach to some of the symbolic heads of the Christian conservative movement.

HOCHBERG: Guth adds though it will be a delicate task for McCain to draw evangelical votes, especially as he tries to preserve his independent maverick image that appeals to moderates. Yesterday, at Liberty University, opinions of McCain were mixed.

Vivian Canard(ph), who came to see her nephew graduate, says she's been ambivalent about the senator in the past, but was impressed by his visit.

Ms. VIVIAN CANARD: I think it's a really good idea that he did come because at least he's willing to understand what somebody's -- like Jerry Falwell, what he thinks, and to come here to find out who these quote "right-wingers" are and what we believe in. So -- which is a good thing.

HOCHBERG: But it also was clear McCain has more work to do to win over evangelical voters. Liberty graduate John Brady says he strongly disagrees with McCain on issues like the Senate filibuster rule, which many conservatives fear will lead to more liberal judges.

Mr. JOHN BRADY (Liberty University Graduate): You know, I've really struggled with him being here, frankly, today. But I thought he did a great job. He is a true American hero. And if he were to win the Republican nomination, you know, I'd probably have to support him, maybe somewhat begrudging.

HOCHBERG: This week, McCain is scheduled to give another commencement address at a different kind of institution. He'll speak at the New School, a progressive university in Greenwich Village, New York. And unlike in Lynchburg, where some believe McCain is too liberal, many New School students plan to protest his appearance because they consider him too conservative.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News.

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