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The political ramifications of Ariz. Sen. John S. McCain's courageous condemnation of the religious right's "self-appointed leaders" last Monday in Virginia are still unclear. As was to be expected, Texas Gov. George W. Bush enjoyed the support of Virginia's rank-and-file Republicans and religious conservatives to win all of the state's 56 delegates. But the true test of McCain's move to the middle will be next week's "Super Tuesday" primaries, when 13 states and 613 GOP delegates will be up for grabs. Granted, McCain's remarks may have alienated conservative Republican voters on whom he must now rely even more, since the bulk of the upcoming primaries will be restricted to registered party members. Nevertheless, in states like New York, both GOP candidates could benefit politically by distancing themselves from the religious far right. Even Bush, in the wake of critical attacks regarding his appearance at Bob Jones University, recently wrote an apologetic letter to Cardinal John O'Connor, the leader of New York's Catholics.
This is not to say that McCain's indictment of Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, and Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, was nothing more than political maneuvering. On the contrary, the remarks last Monday in Virginia may be indicative of a deeper, and potentially far-reaching, re-examination of the GOP's soul. For the first time since the Reagan campaign, the Republican party might find reason to shift its base.
According to Ralph Reed, one of Gov. Bush's advisors and a former executive director of the Christian Coalition, Bush's strategy has been to "follow the classic Reagan model. Begin with core conservative voters. Move from there to rank-and-file Republicans. Then move to independents. Then move out to conservative Democrats." McCain has turned this approach on its head. His victories in New Hampshire and Michigan have been bolstered by the support of moderate Republicans, independents and Democrats.
McCain has repeatedly shown a willingness to discard the support of the far-right evangelical leaders drawn in by the Reagan era, from last year's meeting with Log Cabin Republicans to this week's sharp censure of Robertson and Falwell.
This appeal to what is perceived as "party outsiders" has led Bush to accuse McCain of trying to divide the Republican party. Nothing could be farther from the truth. McCain's strong showing thus far should indicate to party leaders that voters aren't so willing to embrace the old establishment. Any type of party re-examination, particularly one as cathartic as this, is a sign of a healthy primary season.
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