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Sen. John McCain’s campaign hosted a Catholics for McCain event in an attempt to reach out to Catholic voters.
BY CHARLIE SPIERINGREGISTER CORRESPONDENT
WASHINGTON — In a week when Catholics flocked into
Washington to see Pope Benedict XVI, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and members of
his presidential campaign reached out for their support.
Following the papal visit to the White House, the campaign
hosted a Catholics for McCain event at the Metropolitan Club, as co-chairmen
Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and supporter Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., met with
other Catholics and discussed McCain’s candidacy.
McCain also joined attendees at the White House dinner in
honor of the Holy Father’s birthday on April 16, and the National Catholic
Prayer breakfast April 18 at the Washington Hilton, as Pope Benedict left for
Cindy McCain spoke to the Metropolitan Club gathering about
her husband’s character and emphasized the core principles of his campaign,
including life, marriage and family.
“I was really impressed with Cindy McCain’s speech, said
Dorothy Fleming, who attended from Minnesota. “She really came off as gracious
and humble and seemed to be a lovely role model.”
Catholic author Deal Hudson was also present, and noted that
McCain was steadily improving his relations with Catholics nationwide.
“McCain is being received very well among Catholics; he has
a natural appeal to them,” said Hudson, “They are getting word that he is both
pro-life and pro-family and they appreciate his patriotism.”
Hudson also noted that some Catholics were attracted to
McCain’s softer tone on immigration, and others were watching his views on
nominating judges. Campaign manager Rick Davis reassured Catholics at the event
that McCain would nominate strict constructionist judges for the Supreme Court.
“A lot of people don’t realize how pro-life he is,” added
Hudson, noting McCain’s 25-year pro-life record. “Most of the Catholics I talk
to are surprised.”
Last month, McCain received the quiet endorsement of the
National Right to Life for the general election, although the organization has
had a rocky relationship with him in the past. In the 2000 presidential
primaries, National Right to Life campaigned against McCain and endorsed his
rival George W. Bush.
McCain received mixed results among Catholic voters in the
2008 primaries but gradually took the lead as the campaign gained momentum. In
South Carolina, he won 35% of Catholics who attended church weekly, while Mitt
Romney received 28%, followed by Fred Thompson at 18% and Mike Huckabee at 14%.
Catholic voter Bernard King of Kentucky said that it was
disappointing to end up with McCain as the Republican nominee.
“On the issue of embryonic stem cells, McCain voted the same
as both Clinton and Obama,” he said, “There’s a reason that we didn’t support
him in 2000, and I think that it’s outrageous that we are expected to vote for
Hudson said that it was not so much McCain’s political
stance on the issues, but rather that McCain was perceived by some as “aloof”
and not as eager to reach out to religious groups.
“I think that he is talking about religion in a more
positive way and having some good meetings and discussions with religious
voters,” he said. Hudson has joined the list of Catholics who are supporting
McCain and has given the campaign some informal advice on Catholic outreach.
McCain also joined notable Catholic leaders as he attended a
White House dinner in honor of the papal visit. The guests included all five
Catholic Supreme Court Justices: Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices
Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas.
A spokesman from the McCain campaign indicated that McCain
plans to give a speech on his vision for judges soon, and will appoint
Brownback and former Solicitor General Theodore Olson to his judicial advisory
Joe Cella, a Catholic activist and president of the National
Catholic Prayer Breakfast, noted that McCain was warmly received by many of the
attendees. He received a standing ovation when he was introduced.
Although McCain did not speak at the event, he spent some
time before Bush’s speech greeting the attendees with Brownback.
Cella said that both Democratic presidential candidates were
invited to the event, but that Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., “politely declined”
and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., never responded.
Catholics United, an activist group, protested outside the
hotel where the breakfast was being held.
Chris Korzen, executive director of Catholics United, was
unequivocal in criticizing the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast as well as
President Bush and McCain.
“The decision to invade Iraq and the support for certain
forms of torture are the two greatest lapses of moral judgment by a public
official in my lifetime,” he said. “To host President Bush and John McCain without
addressing these concerns is offensive to Catholics and to Pope Benedict’s
message of peace.”
Cella noted that although some Catholics do not support the
Iraq war, many are supporting McCain because of their opposition to the
Democrat candidates’ support for abortion rights.
“It all boils down to an increasingly stark contrast to a
choice between the remaining candidates,” he said, “with issues of concern to
Roman Catholics, primarily with the defense for life at all stages.”
Catholic voter Joseph Fino of Columbus, Ohio, said that he
was opposed to voting for McCain and would probably vote for a third-party
“If we truly want to exercise our vote properly and utilize
our democracy to the fullness of its potential we have to vote for whom we
think is the best candidate, not the mere lesser of evils,” he said.
But Peter Wolfgang, executive director of the Family
Institute of Connecticut, feels that Church-going Catholics are “pragmatic” and
will not, in a close election, cast votes for a candidate that could turn out
to be a “spoiler.”
“We don’t want a repeat of 1990, when so many
middle-of-the-road folks voted for Ross Perot, causing the defeat of a pro-life
candidate and ensuring a pro-abortion presidency for the next eight years,”
Wolfgang said, referring to Bill Clinton.
McCain, though, has a lot of work to do in winning over
Catholic voters on the embryonic stem-cell issue.
John Oppie, also a Catholic voter, noted that while McCain
was not his first choice for the nomination, he would still vote for him in
November, rather than Obama or Clinton. “I do like McCain because of his for
the most part pro-life position, his strong love of America and because he is a
man of courage who sticks to his guns, even if I don’t always like his convictions,”
In spite of McCain’s difficulties winning the support of
religious voters in the past, Hudson noted that his efforts were already having
an effect in faith-based groups.
“The key is going to be, how much the campaign commits to
religious coalition building,” he said. “That vote is there to get and to win,
the campaign just has to continue making an effort and counteract the
perception that originally there wasn’t a lot of affection there.”
Charlie Spiering writes from