Religious right leader says McCain has ‘work to do’ to win evangelicals

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainDonald Trump's 2020 election economic gamble 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes The Memo: Democrats confront prospect of long primary MORE (R-Ariz.) must work hard to reach out to evangelical voters to get them “excited” about his candidacy, a leading social conservative figure said Wednesday.

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said a number of the presumptive GOP presidential nominee’s policies and actions in the Senate have rubbed socially conservative evangelical voters the wrong way, and he will need them and their “enthusiasm” to win the White House.

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“It’s not automatic,” Perkins said.

Perkins made the remarks after an event promoting Personal Faith, Public Policy, a book he co-wrote with Bishop Harry Jackson, chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition.

Perkins and Jackson were joined by the Revs. Jim Wallis and Sam Rodriguez in a discussion about the political agenda of evangelicals, but they spoke more about issues than the election.

After the presentation, Perkins said McCain has injured his relationship with evangelicals and social conservatives by joining Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold (Wis.) in sponsoring campaign finance legislation. He also mentioned

McCain’s membership in the so-called bipartisan “Gang of 14” senators who worked to accommodate one another on judicial appointments, and his refusal to endorse a constitutional amendment on gay marriage.

Perkins said that because of McCain’s involvement in those issues, the senator will have to vigorously pursue the support of what was a key voting bloc in both of President George W. Bush’s close election victories.

Perkins suggested several approaches McCain can take to woo a crowd that might feel dissatisfied after supporting former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and watching him drop out of the race.

McCain should “hold the Bush line” on banning federal funding for stem cell research, announce that he will appoint a “family czar” to show his commitment to families and be more vocal about his lifelong record opposing abortion rights, Perkins said.

“He’s never led on those issues, and he’s never seemed comfortable talking about those issues,” Perkins said.

But Perkins said McCain has a solid voting record on issues that are dear to socially conservative evangelical voters, and he can use that record as a “foundation” to reach out to them.

“I don’t think that that’s too big a stretch for him, but he’s going to have to work at it,” Perkins said.

Early in the program, the former Louisiana legislator said that many in the media have written off the influence of the religious right because McCain was able to win the states and delegates necessary to become the Republican nominee.

Perkins, however, insisted there is proof that evangelicals continue to influence elections because “it’s not a Rudy Giuliani candidacy.”

Perkins said Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, was seen by many as the inevitable nominee for most of last year until evangelical Republicans decided his “Big Apple values” were out of line with “the core of the Republican Party.”

“All of a sudden, Rudy Giuliani dropped like a rock,” he said.

Both Jackson and Perkins stressed throughout the program that the evangelical movement and its influence on electoral politics is “not dead.”

“These headlines, like the paper they’re written on, are recycled,” Perkins said.

But to remain viable as a strong political influence, the panelists said, the evangelicals and their leaders have to expand their agenda and make clear to politicians that they will not line up behind Republicans just because they’re expected to.

“We should be the ultimate swing vote,” Wallis said. “Those voters are in play for sure, but they’re in nobody’s pocket now.”

Perkins agreed with Wallis, who is often labeled as a leader of the religious left, that evangelical leaders “cannot afford to be co-opted.”

He also made the case that many issues are above party lines by citing polls from the last two days showing that a majority of New Yorkers wanted embattled Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) to resign or be impeached after he was accused of being involved in a prostitution ring.

“Those values are transcendent,” Perkins said.

Democratic front-runner Sen. Barack Obama’s (Ill.) religion also came into play when the panelists were asked about accusations that Obama’s Trinity United Church of Christ is a “racist” organization.

Jackson said that while he disagrees with some of the statements made by the church’s leader, accusations like that are part of “a conspiracy that wants to silence the voice of the church.”

Wallis added that it is merely a “black church” that is proud of its African-American heritage.

Some conservatives have accused the Trinity Church, whose motto is “Unashamedly Black, Unapologetically Christian,” and its Rev. Jeremiah Wright, with whom Obama professes to have a close relationship, as racist because of its African-American-oriented membership and message and controversial statements Wright has made in the past.

Jessica Malmgren contributed to this article.