Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign is reaching out to Catholics in hopes of winning their votes for the November presidential election, the Dallas Morning News reports.
Catholics, who compose about 25 percent of the electorate, were once overwhelmingly Democratic voters. In recent decades significant numbers of them have moved towards the Republican Party, turning the Catholic vote into a key swing vote constituency.
The McCain campaign has announced that it enjoys support from a group of 100 prominent Catholics, headed by former presidential candidate and Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas.
Rob Wasinger, Brownback’s former campaign manager, said Senator McCain was “a natural for Catholics.” Wasinger cited McCain’s pro-life stand and his position against homosexual marriage as reasons for his appeal to Catholics. Wasinger also said the Arizona senator’s opposition to torture, his moderate views on immigration, and his stand on the environment could help him win Catholics’ votes.
"He's going to have an easier sell with Catholics than with the grass-roots conservative GOP," said Deal Hudson, a McCain supporter who was a key adviser in President George W. Bush’s Catholic outreach efforts.
Though McCain’s support for the Iraq war differed from church leaders’ doubts about the justice of the war, Hudson believed that stand would not be a primary consideration.
"If they get to know his pro-life record, that will offset the Iraq war issues," Hudson said, according to the Dallas Morning News.
McCain also differs from Catholic positions in his support for embryonic stem cell research.
Tensions could result from McCain’s need to court both Evangelical and Catholic voters. A more moderate agenda could alienate McCain from conservative Evangelicals, while aligning himself too closely with the so-called Religious Right could alienate moderate Catholics.
"If he can get Catholics and evangelicals together in a coalition, that would make him very difficult to defeat," said political scientist Mark Rozell of George Mason University, according to the Dallas Morning News.
"It's a difficult needle to thread," said Matthew Dowd, a former Bush political strategist.
Senator McCain’s endorsement from Texas-based televangelist Reverend John Hagee, who reportedly called the Catholic Church a “false cult system ” and “the great whore,” provoked demands from the Catholic League that McCain renounce the endorsement.
McCain later repudiated Hagee’s views, but not his support.
The McCain campaign actively sought the endorsement to boost the senator’s appeal to Evangelicals. It is thought that the senator’s support from conservative Catholics helped McCain limit the controversy.
Before the Florida primary, McCain devoted ten staffers to the campaign’s outreach to Florida Catholics. The staffers contacted about 500,000 Catholics statewide. In the primary election, the Baptist McCain beat his closest rival, Catholic and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, by 15 percent.
"McCain needed help in Iowa to come in at a respectable level. He had to win New Hampshire. And then to close the deal, he had to win Florida. And in each place, the Catholic vote really provided the edge," Deal Hudson said.
Democrat presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are also seeking Catholic voters. Senator Clinton won the Catholic vote in early primary states, and she presently leads Senator Obama among Pennsylvanian Catholics. Catholics are a key constituency in Pennsylvania, whose April primary could decide the future of Clinton’s campaign.