McCain Woos the Right, Makes Peace With Falwell


March 28, 2006 — -- Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., still breaks from GOP orthodoxy on such issues as torture and immigration. But operating below the radar, the potential Republican presidential hopeful is taking steps to win over the conservatives who denied him the GOP's presidential nomination in 2000.

His efforts have paid off with at least one prominent conservative.

"I think he is genuinely a state's righter -- and so am I," the Rev. Jerry Falwell told ABC News.

When McCain ran for president the last time, he denounced Falwell as one of America's "agents of intolerance." But now that McCain is gearing up to run for president as the GOP's establishment candidate, he has told Falwell that he spoke "in haste" in 2000.

"It just came down to pure old politics in South Carolina and other states," Falwell said.

Falwell and McCain first made peace in a face-to-face meeting a few months ago. In a sign of their improved relationship, McCain has agreed to be the graduation speaker at Falwell's Liberty University on May 13.

When McCain accepted an invitation to be Liberty University's graduation speaker, he spoke with Falwell by phone about the marriage issue.

According to Falwell, McCain is not pushing for a federal marriage amendment at this time. But McCain "reconfirmed" to Falwell that he would support a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman if a federal court were to strike down state constitutional bans on gay marriage.

McCain's outreach to conservatives on marriage is politically important because of the way he sharply denounced a federal constitutional ban on gay marriage when it was considered in 2004. McCain called it "antithetical in every way to the core philosophy of Republicans" because it "usurps from the states a fundamental authority they have always possessed and imposes a federal remedy for a problem that most states do not believe confronts them."

Democrats wasted little time criticizing McCain's rapprochement with Falwell. Karen Finney, the Democratic National Committee's communications director, called it a "flip- flop."

"Here he goes again," Finney said, "more double talk and pandering to the right wing from John McCain. It looks like there are real questions about where he truly stands on this issue, in fact, it's getting hard to tell where he truly stands on a number of critical issues."

In 2000, McCain wanted to change the GOP's abortion platform to explicitly recognize exceptions for rape and incest.

"George, do you believe in the exemption in abortion ... for rape, incest and life of the mother?" McCain pointedly asked then-Gov. George W. Bush during a 2000 GOP debate moderated by CNN's Larry King.

McCain says publicly that he still supports exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. But one of his aides recently told the Hotline, the National Journal's daily political briefing, that if McCain were governor of South Dakota, he would have signed the state's recently enacted abortion ban, a ban that would have applied even in cases of rape and incest.

When asked recently on "Good Morning America" how he would feel if Roe v. Wade were overturned, McCain said: "I've never agreed with Roe v. Wade so it wouldn't bother me any."

"Most of the pro-life community, myself included, is happy with McCain's pro-life views," Falwell told ABC News. "We are comfortable."

McCain's wooing of conservatives also extends to economic issues.

The Arizona senator has long emphasized the deficit over tax cuts.

But in February of this year, he voted to continue the president's dividend and capital gains tax cuts.

"It's a big flip-flop," Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, told the Washington Times, "but I'm happy that he's flopped."

No one expects McCain to become the darling of the conservative base. But as McCain works to make himself acceptable to the GOP's core voters, more and more of the president's political and financial backers are getting on board with the one-time insurgent.

As one GOP insider recently told ABC News, conservatives have started to view McCain as Bush's "legacy candidate," the one person who could "finish the job" in Iraq.

ABC News' Mike Westling contributed to this report.