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McCain scorches religious right

Attack on Robertson, Falwell is a gamble

Tuesday, February 29, 2000

By Ann McFeatters, Post-Gazette National Bureau

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Taking an enormous gamble, Sen. John McCain lashed out yesterday at leaders of the Christian conservative movement and called George W. Bush a "Pat Robertson Republican who will lose to Al Gore."

In a carefully calculated speech as he headed into today's Virginia primary, he said, "Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance. Whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left or Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell on the right."

He compared Robertson to "union bosses who have subordinated the interests of working families to their own ambitions," and he accused both men of attempting to distort his position on abortion and "smear the reputations of my supporters."

Pundits immediately compared the speech to Bill Clinton's gamble in 1992, denouncing black activist and rap singer Sister Souljah as an extremist in an effort to position himself in the center of the political spectrum.

McCain's speech was seen as partly an angry response over Robertson's taped telephone messages to Michigan voters before the GOP primary there, in which Robertson called a top McCain aide a "vicious bigot" for saying some in the religious right had become too intolerant.

"The politics of division and slander are not our values," McCain said during a somber address to some 4,000 people who packed a high school gymnasium in Virginia Beach, only 30 miles from the headquarters of the Christian Coalition. "They are corrupting influences on religion and politics and those who practice them in the name of religion or in the name of the Republican Party or in the name of America shame our faith, our party and our country."

McCain is the first conservative Republican presidential candidate to take on Robertson and the Christian Coalition directly.

The coalition and many of its members have been active so far this year on Bush's behalf. Noticeably in disagreement is Gary Bauer, a social activist and conservative Christian who quit his campaign after the New Hampshire primary and since has endorsed McCain.

Religious conservatives are an active component of the Republican coalition that controls Congress, an electrified "third rail" of GOP politics rarely crossed by candidates seeking a party nomination or needing help in a general election. They backed Bush by two-to-one margins in South Carolina and Michigan.

"The social conservatives are an important part of the Republican coalition and they need to be part of a winning coalition to beat Al Gore," said GOP strategist Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign.

In Virginia, 21 percent of voters in the 1996 general election called themselves Christian conservatives.

Linking Bush to Robertson and the religious right may strike a chord in New York, Ohio and New England, where large Catholic populations can influence March 7 voting.

And if McCain survives that 13-state showdown, his political team is betting that Bush has hurt himself in battleground states holding late primaries, such as Pennsylvania, Illinois, Wisconsin and New Jersey.

"McCain is attempting to make this a referendum on Pat Robertson instead of George Bush, and I'm sure Robertson's [poll] numbers are not as good as Bush's," said New York GOP strategist Kieran Mahoney. He works for New York Gov. George Pataki, a Bush backer, but is not aligned with a presidential campaign.

In addition to the voting in Virginia, North Dakota Republicans caucus today for delegates that will go to a state convention later, and GOP Gov. Ed Schafer insists that Bush will win the tally.

Virginia is a different situation for McCain. Democrats and independents may vote today in the GOP primary but must take a pledge that they won't participate in nominating anyone for any other party.

Since the Democrats' caucus is not considered a particularly big deal, McCain is trying to tell independents and Democrats that they should vote for him.

But Bush has led among Republicans decisively in every poll, and McCain has an uphill race to win.

Voter interviews in Northern Virginia, adjacent to Washington, D.C., indicate that unlike many areas of the country, where McCain's 18-year record in Congress is relatively unknown, many voters there know McCain. As chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, he worked to try to funnel more jet flights into and out of Reagan National Airport -- not a popular position.

Also, McCain has been no friend to the Seawolf submarine, saying it should not be built at Norfolk, where shipbuilding is a major contributor to Virginia's economy. Finally, McCain has been ridiculing what he calls the Republican "machine" of Gov. James Gilmore and Sen. John Warner, both of whom staunchly support Bush. But in the last two presidential elections, the Republican candidate won Virginia -- George Bush in 1992 and Bob Dole in 1996. Virginia has 56 GOP delegates of the 1034 needed to get the nomination.

The Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.

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