McCain Is Fighting to Win the Catholic Vote

After televangelist Hagee's endorsement, McCain tries to repair his relations with the critical bloc.

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When Sen. John McCain stood with Texas televangelist John Hagee last month and said he was "proud" to receive the megachurch pastor's endorsement, a collective shudder ran through the country's Catholic leaders.

Their agitation and anger—Hagee, after all, had a history of making virulent anti-Catholic statements, such as calling the religion a "false cult" and a contributor to Hitler's anti-Semitism—finally forced the presumed GOP presidential nominee to take a step back. He repudiated Hagee's anti-Catholic comments and this week launched a national effort to bring Catholics into his fold.

And today, his spokeswoman said that the campaign was confident that the senator had resolved the issue by distancing himself from Hagee's anti-Catholic comments. But some in the Catholic community still believe that damage was done and that McCain's judgment remains open to question.

Was it so important, Chris Korzen of Catholics United asked, for McCain to pander to skeptical conservative evangelicals that he would risk alienating Catholic voters, who typically make up a quarter of the electorate in presidential election years? The controversy was fueled by leaders who ranged from Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Catholic who called Hagee's comments "outside the circle of civilized debate in our democracy."

It does appear that McCain has managed to tamp down much of the outrage—not by rejecting the pastor's endorsement, as Pelosi and others had demanded, but by repudiating in an interview with the Associated Press "any comments that are made, including Pastor Hagee's, if they are anti-Catholic or offensive to Catholics." And early this week, the McCain campaign announced that 100 prominent Catholics had joined the National Catholics for McCain Committee, headed by former GOP presidential candidate Sen. Sam Brownback. The committee, the campaign said, would recruit Catholics nationally.

McCain's specific rejection of Hagee's anti-Catholic statements came none too soon. It was imperative that he distance himself quickly from Hagee's comments because the endorsement "was in danger of becoming a major issue for Catholic voters," says Deal Hudson, a major architect of the Bush administration's highly successful Catholic outreach effort. "It's very clear that insofar as Rev. Hagee holds these opinions, Sen. McCain has now made it clear that he doesn't share them."

If McCain had failed to step away from Hagee's comments about Catholicism or if he had accepted the pastor's endorsement later in the campaign, it had a real possibility of causing harm, say Hudson and Donohue. Now? "I think you can write it off for one major reason: this is March," said Donohue, who called the issue "closed." By fall, he said, "this is old news."

But, says Donohue, "Sen. McCain had lousy judgment and got lousy advice on this one." He said he pushed the campaign to issue a statement that linked Hagee with anti-Catholic statements. "I wouldn't accept some apple-pie statement that would simply reject all forms of bigotry, including anti-Catholicism," Donohue said. "He had to acknowledge that Hagee contributed to anti-Catholicism," though McCain did so in a way that Donohue and others characterized as carefully parsed.

With McCain plotting a path to the White House by attracting independent voters as well as white, ethnic, and largely Catholic Democrats whom Ronald Reagan successfully wooed, it is imperative that he establish his bona fides with Catholics, Hudson says. Catholic voters, though not a monolith, are powerful — and not a group to be trifled with. Surveys have shown that historically they turn out on Election Day in numbers that are higher than those for the overall electorate and almost without fail vote for the winner, with the exception of 2000, when a majority of Catholics voted for Democrat Al Gore. In 2004, Catholics were key to President Bush's re-election — 52 percent of them voted for him. (Turnout among Catholics that year was estimated at 63 percent, while overall turnout was 53 percent of the voting-age population.)