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The Seattle Times Political Caucus is an online community aimed at adding diverse voices to our coverage of politics. How we'll use the Caucus will evolve over time. But the idea is to create a conversation with people of various backgrounds and political beliefs. As the election season unfolds, we'll ask participants to weigh in on key political questions and then post their comments here.

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September 10, 2008 4:41 PM

The risk of McCain's embrace of religious conservatives

Posted by Richard Wagoner

domke.JPGUniversity of Washington professor David Domke, an expert on the intersection of faith and politics, writes today about John McCain's courtship of religious conservatives.

By David Domke

The Republican Party celebrated a homecoming at its national convention in St. Paul last week, triggered by John McCain's selection of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as a VP running mate. Palin is a pro-life, pro-creationism, anti-global warming, gun-toting mother of five who has declared the U.S. war in Iraq "a task that is from God."

Suddenly, the Religious Right was breaking bread anew with McCain and his presidential campaign. Old rifts - such as McCain's characterization of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as "agents of intolerance" in the 2000 campaign - were forgotten.

The political and religious right offer a familiar alliance for the GOP, and the post-convention bounce McCain and Palin are receiving in presidential daily tracking polls suggests so far, so good. But history also indicates that the GOP campaign is in precarious territory.

Beginning with Richard Nixon's victory in 1968, the Republicans have won seven of the past 10 presidential elections, in significant part by embracing evangelicals. Nixon, for example, famously was close pals with evangelist Billy Graham, even becoming the only president to speak at a Graham crusade in 1970 in Tennessee. Nixon's invocation of a "Silent Majority" played well with these voters, who felt on the fringes of American politics.

Nixon set into motion a love affair that has grown over time. Today, evangelicals have become the GOP electoral base, and it's impossible for Republican presidential candidates to win without their support. Fully a third of the delegates to the Republican convention in St. Paul self-identified as evangelicals or "born-again Christians," and my research with colleague Kevin Coe shows these voters to have become the key bloc in the GOP electoral coalition.

But Republican candidates have to be careful in how they embrace these voters, particularly close to election day when many citizens are paying attention. Anything too overtly religious runs the risk of turning off moderates.

Consider the presidential election of 1992, which is a close and recent parallel to 2008. Democratic nominee Bill Clinton, like Barack Obama, was running on a message of hope and change. Republican nominee George H. W. Bush was hamstrung with a tanking economy and facing a bloc of religious conservatives who were perpetually skeptical of him - just like McCain.

In 1992 when Republicans gathered in Houston for their convention, Bush was trailing Clinton in the polls and faced a choice: Bush could reach out to political moderates, whom he had secured in 1988, or he could seek to mobilize the base of religious conservatives. Bush took the latter approach.

When Jerry Falwell needed a place to sit in the convention hall, a seat with the Bush family was provided. In the party platform, Republicans took what many felt were their most socially conservative stances in decades - including, for the first time, explicit opposition to same-sex marriage. And most important, religious conservative favorites Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan were given prime slots in the speaking line up, with Buchanan delivering a take-no-prisoners address in which he declared, "There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself."

Bush's strategy achieved its aim: It mobilized the Republican faithful. But it came with consequences. Clinton used these moments to paint Bush as beholden to out-of-the-mainstream religious zealots. True or not, it caught the attention of media and the general public. Sure enough, when Bush told a gathering that the Democratic platform had "left out three simple letters, G-O-D," the New York Times editorialized that Bush had "crossed a line" by "questioning the religious convictions of his opponents." Further media scrutiny followed.

Ultimately, Bush's highly visible embrace of the religious right so close to election day cost him moderates and, ultimately, the election. It's one thing to show love to the core of the party; it's another thing to do it when everyone is watching, which occurs in each presidential campaign beginning with the party conventions.

In the words of Doug Wead, who had run Bush's evangelical outreach in 1988 but wasn't on the campaign in 1992, to PBS' Frontline in 2004: "I'd have [had] Bush senior go ride horses with Pat Robertson on his private estates and say all kinds of things and kiss in secret, but not in public."

Wead added that there "is the great danger for a politician with the evangelical constituency. As a Republican, you can't win without them. But sometimes, you can lose with them, too, because of the backlash. ... [Y]ou have to be careful how and [in] what way you appeal to them."

It's much the same scenario in 2008. McCain needs both the evangelical base and moderates to win. It's clear that picking Palin has energized religious conservatives. But it's not clear yet how moderates are responding to his pick.

It's a delicate, fine line McCain must attempt to walk. The New York Times and The Washington Post have already run front-page stories about Palin's religious beliefs and how McCain is appealing to the party' s base. We can expect that Democrats will emphasize that McCain, the self-professed maverick, had his preferred VP choice - pro-abortion rights Democrat Joseph Lieberman - vetoed by evangelicals.

Ultimately, whether McCain can show his independence from these voters may be just as important as his ability to show independence from President George W. Bush.

David Domke, a former newspaper journalist, is a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. Domke also has worked with Democratic Party leaders in the Northwest to understand the dynamics of modern political campaigns. His latest book, "The God Strategy: How Religion Became A Political Weapon in America," was published in January. He can be reached at

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