“McCain’s Opportunity, Obama’s Challenge”

Deal W. Hudson
July 28, 2008

In May 2007, Benedict XVI flew to meet with the bishops of Mexico, Central America, and South America. While on the plane, the pope answered a question from a reporter about the Mexican bishops who were threatening to withhold the Eucharist from Catholic politicians who voted in favor of legalizing abortion.

The Holy Father expressed his support for the Mexican bishops, saying: “It’s nothing new, it’s normal, it wasn’t arbitrary. It is what is foreseen by the church’s doctrine.” The pope’s spokesman later clarified his comment saying, “Legislative action in favor of abortion is incompatible with participation in the Eucharist.”

His answer got the attention of candidates in the U.S. presidential primary – especially Rudy Giuliani, who was quick to say, “I do not get in debates with the pope. It’s not a good idea. Issues like that are between me and my confessor.”

Giuliani had been riding high in the spring of 2007, and big GOP money was moving his way. At the same time, the McCain campaign was about to fall apart. But that wouldn’t last; the GOP wasn’t going to nominate someone on the wrong side of the abortion and marriage debate.

McCain eventually earned the GOP nomination and watched Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama slug it out for three months until Clinton conceded. But McCain spent that time raising money, not consolidating his support among religious conservatives. The controversy over Rev. John Hagee’s Hitler comments only made McCain’s relationship with the Christian grassroots even more tenuous.

A month later, he met with Billy Graham and his son Franklin. Ninety evangelical leaders met privately in Denver a week later to discuss providing more support to McCain. The meeting was convened by a former Huckabee supporter, Matt Staver, who explained,” Our shared core values compel us to unite and choose the presidential candidate that best advances those values.”

Two weeks after the Denver meeting, on a July 21 radio show, Dr. James Dobson surprised everyone by announcing, “I never thought I would hear myself saying this.… While I am not endorsing Senator John McCain, the possibility is there that I might.”

Dobson is, in some ways, the major player of the Religious Right, but his volatility in the 2008 primary – particularly his third-party threat – has diminished his influence and set the scene for the cool reception of the McCain nomination.

A more important opportunity for McCain to solidify religious conservatives is his upcoming appearance at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, on August 16. Warren, who is slowly assuming the mantle of leadership among Christian voters, will hold a one-hour conversation with each of the candidates.

Warren is known for his attention to issues like HIV/AIDS in Rwanda and climate change, but he is also solidly pro-life and opposed to gay marriage. If Warren questions each candidate as he surely will, the differences between the two will be very apparent.

The conversation with Warren will force the reluctant McCain to talk about his faith, while also giving him an opportunity to reiterate his support of unborn life and marriage between a man and woman. (It’s surprising how many voters are not aware of McCain’s positions on these issues.)

Voters are also not fully aware of Obama’s abortion record. In that way, he is in roughly the same position as Giuliani in the spring of 2007. GOP voters had not yet learned that “America’s Mayor,” despite his Italian-Catholic name and credentials, did not uphold the teaching of the Church on protecting unborn life.

Then the unforeseen happened – Benedict XVI answered a question from reporters – and Giuliani started getting peppered with questions about his abortion stance. His downward slide began there.

Obama has not had his moment yet, and he may not. It’s difficult to predict how many votes he’ll lose when his position on abortion becomes more widely known. He’s not running among the GOP faithful as Giuliani did in the primary, so he can probably absorb the loss. But when you add his opposition to the ban on same-sex marriage in California, he might face increased resistance in battleground states like Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and Virginia.

August 16 will be a big day for both Obama and McCain. Whatever happens, American voters will know more about the candidates’ positions on social issues important to religious conservatives. The fallout could be decisive in November.

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