The McCain Factor: Why Isn't He the Front-Runner?

On paper, he's the ideal Republican candidate to hold onto the White House in 2008.

John McCain is a war hero who's not afraid to speak his mind, a respected senator whose conservative credentials on the Iraq War and abortion and whose maverick views about climate control and campaign finance should be able to win over evangelicals, moderate Republicans and independent voters.

Especially when you consider that the Arizona senator's leading competitors include a Mormon who's been accused of flip-flopping on important issues and a pro-choice, gay-rights supporter from New York City.

But McCain isn't the clear front-runner in this race, despite his attempt to play the middle.

He's reached out to moderate voters with his numerous media appearances. Last night he went on CBS's "Late Night With David Letterman" to announce his intention to run for president, and last week he flew around California with Arnold Schwarzenegger to call for federal action to stop global warming. At the same time, he's courted conservatives, recently meeting with religious broadcasters in Florida and mending fences with evangelical leaders.

His attempt to play the middle has won him the financial backing of major fundraisers, but it's also cost him support on the left and the right, at least at this early stage in the race.

In recent months, his support has been slipping -- especially among evangelical voters. According to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, the senator drew less than half the support of Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani led among Republicans with 44 percent, while McCain drew only 21 percent.

And most surprising of all was that white evangelical Protestants preferred Giuliani, despite the fact that when it comes to issues important to that powerful voting bloc, the former mayor's positions clash with theirs.

A spokesman for McCain's campaign say that it's early in the primary season and that they're pleased with the support they're getting at this stage in the game.

"Clearly, Senator McCain's duties in the Senate have taken up a large amount of his time, That being said, we're very pleased with the amount of endorsements and support we've received across the country," says Matt David. "Most polls show us up or within the margin of error."

Fortunes will turn fast in the coming months, but the candidate is facing some serious challenges in what will prove to be a tough campaign.

The first one will come in the courting of conservatives, that wide array of Republicans who range from tax cutters to evangelical Protestants.

Since the Republican primary in 2000, when George Bush outflanked McCain at winning over conservatives, the senator has gone out of his way to gain their favor. Although he derided evangelical leaders Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as "agents of intolerance" during that primary, McCain now courts their support. He delivered the commencement address at Falwell's Liberty University last May.

McCain also started moving further to the right in recent months, announcing his opposition to gay marriage and declaring that he desired overturning the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in 1973.

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