McCain urges Republicans to calm down

February 6, 2008 6:14:36 PM PST
Republican John McCain, more than halfway to his party's presidential nomination, told his conservative critics Wednesday to dial back their animosity and personally reached out to a leading Christian conservative. "I do hope that at some point we would just calm down a little bit and see if there's areas we can agree on," McCain said at a news conference in a Phoenix airport hangar before he flew here.

The Rev. Jonathan Falwell, son of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell who made the religious right a political force when he founded the Moral Majority in 1979, disclosed Wednesday that he had a telephone talk with McCain within the past 24 hours. Falwell, who succeeded his father as pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchville, Va., said he wasn't ready to endorse a candidate but wanted to hear more from the Arizona senator on the issues.

"I look forward to seeing what McCain's plan is to unite the party," Falwell said, "and to see what he has to say in the coming days on the social agenda." He also expressed interest in hearing more from McCain on national security, the economy, Supreme Court nominees, and "how to protect human life and traditional marriage."

Falwell said McCain's call was the culmination of a couple months of contact he has had with McCain's staff.

McCain had a falling out with Christian conservatives during his 2000 presidential campaign when he called the elder Falwell and religious broadcaster Pat Robertson "agents of intolerance." But McCain made up with the elder Falwell in 2006 and spoke to graduating seniors that year at Liberty University. The school was founded by the elder Falwell and is now run by Jerry Falwell Jr., who last November endorsed McCain's rival, Mike Huckabee, himself an ordained Baptist minister.

With Tuesday's votes pushing him to almost 60 percent of the delegates needed for nomination, McCain took a break from campaigning to return to Washington, where he planned to speak to a gathering of conservatives Thursday. He now has more delegates than rivals Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul combined.

At his news conference, McCain was talking about well-known talk radio figures and commentators, such as Rush Limbaugh, some of whom are talking about boycotting McCain's candidacy if he captures the nomination.

"I think they've made their case against me pretty eloquently, and I think the majority of Republicans across the board have stated their view," McCain said.

He said he has no plans to reach out personally to Limbaugh or Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, but emphasized: "Our message will be that we all share common principles, common conservative principles, and we should coalesce around those issues in which we are in agreement and I hope respectfully disagree on a few specific issues there's disagreement on."

He later told reporters aboard his campaign plane: "I'm aware there's a very fine line between inspiring in unity and pandering. You know, you've got to present it in the right way, of course."

The conservative critique of McCain escalated Tuesday when Dobson released a statement saying: "I am convinced Senator McCain is not a conservative, and in fact has gone out of his way to stick his thumb in the eyes of those who are." Conservative author and commentator Ann Coulter has said she'd vote and campaign for Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton if McCain is the GOP nominee. Limbaugh has said a McCain nomination would destroy the Republican party.

Some conservatives object to McCain's positions on immigration and campaign finance reform, among other issues. They consider his immigration proposals equivalent to amnesty and his efforts to limit money in politics a violation of free speech. On those issues, McCain joined with liberal Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy and Russell Feingold, respectively.

McCain defended his efforts to reach beyond the Republican party.

"One thing I'm convinced of, without a doubt, is that conservatives are glad when Joe Lieberman and I worked together in establishing the 9/11 Commission and then moved and got many of their recommendations into law," McCain said.

Sen. Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic presidential nominee who now is an independent from Connecticut, has been campaigning with McCain and appeared with him at the news conference.

McCain said he would return to campaigning Thursday, because "I think we've got to try to wrap this thing up as quickly as possible." There are GOP contests Saturday in Louisiana and Kansas and Tuesday in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

Asked whether he might follow Bob Dole's 1996 example and leave the Senate if he got the nomination, McCain didn't completely close the door on that possibility. He noted that unlike Dole, he is not the Senate Republican Leader, but added, "If I get the nomination, we'll figure that out."