After he won the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, John McCain did not talk about abortion.

He did not pledge to appoint strict-constructionist judges to the bench, much less to build a culture of life. He spoke of “our enduring values,” but his definition was not exactly carved on the back of a tablet.

McCain has talked about abortion while campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination. But the impression he conveys is that of a man who prefers to talk about anything else.

He doesn’t raise his voice or get animated; he doesn’t boast of being correct on a major issue; and he doesn’t talk about the subject at length or in detail.

By contrast, McCain talks with passion about “keep[ing] this country safe from its enemies” in the war on terror and “restoring the trust of the American people in their government.” He leaves little doubt that he is committed to “our defense of free markets, low taxes and small government.”

McCain’s uneasiness with talking about abortion belies the conventional wisdom that he is a straight-talking pro-lifer.

Gerard Bradley of Notre Dame Law School has written that McCain’s record on abortion is “not merely exemplary — it is perfect.” Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., has noted that McCain “has been pro-life for 24 years.”

In truth, John McCain is a weak pro-lifer. As recently as 2006, the National Right to Life Committee gave McCain a rating of 75%. He also has a history of flip-flopping and supporting research that destroys human embryos.

Instead of standing up for life, he sits down for it. Whether his passive support for life endures will likely depend on whether pro-lifers allow it to endure.

To be sure, McCain has sought to portray himself as a staunch abortion foe; before the South Carolina primary, he ran a television ad that showed his wife carrying their adopted daughter Bridget from the Missionaries of Charity. And it’s true that McCain has consistently voted against abortion. He has voted to ban partial-birth abortion, he has voted against lifting the ban on privately funded abortions at military hospitals overseas, and he voted to notify parents of minors who get out-of-state abortions.

Yet McCain has done little more than vote against abortion. In fact, McCain in 1999 said that he would oppose an effort to overturn Roe v. Wade. “I’d love to see a point where it is irrelevant and could be repealed because abortion is no longer necessary,” McCain told the editors of the San Francisco Chronicle. “But certainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade, which would then force X number of women in America to illegal and dangerous operations.”

McCain now said he favors overturning Roe.

Yet his support for the pro-life cause has been passive. He has never sponsored pro-life legislation. Indeed, a former Republican colleague has announced that McCain sought frequently to delay putting pro-life bills up for a vote in Congress.

“And I can tell you, when social-conservative issues were ever raised — whether it was marriage or abortion or a whole host of other issues — there were always the moderates who said ‘no, no, no, we can’t: they’re divisive, divisive, divisive,’” former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said earlier this year. “And more often than not, John McCain was … with them.”

Worse, McCain continues to support federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. He has voted repeatedly to overturn President Bush’s ban on the funding. Earlier in his career, he supported federal funding of fetal tissue research.

McCain’s reluctance to extend legal protection to unborn infants should not be a surprise. The grandson and son of Navy admirals, McCain at his core is a nationalist. He views defense of America and her interests as his calling in life.

After his victory in New Hampshire, he told his supporters that “for me that greater cause has always been my country, which I have served imperfectly for many years, but have loved without any reservation every day of my life.”

Not exactly a Robert Casey Sr. or Chris Smith.

It is tempting to dismiss McCain as an unreliable foe of abortion, but this would be a mistake.

Of all the Republican presidential candidates, he is the most electable. His showing among independent voters has been impressive. And if the Democrats nominate Hillary Clinton, expect to see disgruntled conservatives vote for McCain.

So assume that McCain does receive the Republican nomination. What should pro-lifers do?

The best strategy is perhaps the most difficult: Lobby McCain about his culture-of-life positions.

To his credit, McCain has expressed a willingness to change his stands. While campaigning in Florida before that state’s primary, a woman asked him whether promising new methods of stem-cell research would end his support for embryonic stem-cell research. According to The Washington Post, McCain replied firmly that “I have not changed my position yet.”

It’s difficult to imagine McCain expending political capital on pro-lifers’ behalf. But it’s easy to imagine a Democratic president expending some on behalf of pro-choicers.

Mark Stricherz is the author of

Why the Democrats are Blue:

Secular Liberalism and the

Decline of the People’s Party.