Politics & Government

McCain winning over his evangelical doubters

Tom Christian is the kind of religious voter John McCain and Barack Obama were courting when they went to church this weekend. Conservative. Republican. But open to either of them.

If his reaction after watching them this weekend is any indication, Obama impressed people with his ease talking the language of faith, no small feat for a Democrat. But McCain may have shored up support from this critical group.

“When I hear Obama, I think, yeah. McCain comes across as a grouchy old man. But the contrast on the issues eventually becomes clear,” Christian said after watching the two candidates speak at his evangelical church, the Saddleback Church in his hometown of Lake Forest, Calif..

“Obama always makes a better impression,” Christian said. “But McCain was clear on issues like life. He said life begins at conception. That's my position. He believes what I believe. … I like Obama. But I'll be voting for McCain.”

That kind of reaction could make a big difference for McCain, who has been struggling to win the kind of record support from this key voting bloc that helped fellow Republican George W. Bush eke out a close re-election battle in 2004.

Bush took nearly 80 percent of the white evangelical vote in 2004. McCain until now has struggled to reach 70 percent among white evangelicals. Among his problems: He once called prominent evangelicals Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell “agents of intolerance.” And he's long been reticent to talk about his faith.

Both of those are changing. McCain reconciled with Falwell before he died and is more willing to talk about the role of Christianity in his life.

He is also stressing the conservative stands on hot-button issues such as abortion that appeal to religious conservatives.

Abortion and marriage remain top concerns with religious conservatives. But as Saddleback's pastor, Rick Warren, has emphasized, so is helping the poor.

Adam Hutchinson, a Saddleback member, is open to Obama. He welcomed Obama's talk about helping people and what Hutchinson called his “visionary appeal to the heart.” He particularly liked it when Obama said he'd changed his mind about welfare reform.

“I was surprised to hear that from a Democrat,” he said. “That's refreshing.”

His wife, Megan, also said she was open to both, but that she emerged more impressed by McCain.

In 2004, she knew she was for Bush “from the get-go.” This time, however, she was not as enthusiastic about McCain or the Republican Party. “We've had a Republican, and I have moments when I approve and moments when I don't approve.”

After watching both men closely Saturday evening, she said, she still liked both. But she might have liked McCain a little more. “McCain won the hearts of more people,” she said. “Tonight, he won my heart.”