The Straight Talk Express Veers Right

As everyone knows by this point, the Right does not like John McCain and the McCain camp finds itself in a quandary of how to appease hostile right-wing leaders without losing his most valuable asset: his media-concocted reputation as a “straight-talkin’ maverick” who refuses to pander for votes.  

He needs to do it and will do it – but unfortunately for McCain, while some leaders of the right-wing base he needs seem willing to given him an opportunity to win them over, they don’t seem particularly eager to make it easy for him:

A prominent social conservative, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, said in an interview, “I’m willing to sit down and say we all make mistakes if he will come to the conclusion that some of the things he has worked on in the past, like McCain-Feingold, which in some ways the courts have deconstructed,” were mistakes. He added, “He must make social conservatives feel that he, No. 1, understands their issues; No. 2, believes in their issues; and No. 3, will advance them as president.”

Well, that ought to be easy – all he has to do repudiate his entire carefully-crafted reputation … and then beg their forgiveness:

One influential social conservative, Chuck Hurley, president of the Iowa Family Policy Center, said ”it’s a stretch” that McCain could assuage the concerns of social conservatives, but two things could help: ‘If he says, ‘I was wrong, I’m sorry, please forgive me,’ ” on the federal marriage amendment and embryonic stem-cell research. “That would be huge.”

So what is the McCain campaign’s strategy for dealing with this dilemma?  Apparently, it is two-fold:  having some surrogates out there suggesting that McCain has no intention of placating the Right while sending others out to do the pandering and apologizing for him.

Part One entails things like the McCain camp going out of their way to make it known that he has not been reaching out to those Religious Right leaders who might be warming up to him and having supporters like Phil Gramm blast his opponents as power-mad egomaniacs:

“I want to make the point that a lot of conservatives are coming home to McCain,” says former senator Phil Gramm (Tex.), a McCain supporter. “But some aren’t. Some just don’t seem to understand that if they don’t do this, it’s going to hurt the party for a long time. They say they have principles, but some of it is their ego and power, too. They’re well-known, and they’re used to having power.”

The incoming conservative fire against McCain has become a distraction, Gramm acknowledges. “Some people, in their own minds, think they have exerted a strong influence over the party, and now they are seeing that influence passing,” he said. “There’s some bitterness on their part. They’re people who put their dogma in front of the interests of the country. . . . They don’t like it that McCain is McCain.”

Part Two entails quietly sending out proxies to woo them:

The effort to win over, or at least blunt the opposition, of talk-radio hosts and other movement figures who resent McCain’s maverick style and past departures from conservative orthodoxy involves both high-level surrogates and the candidate himself.

Its targets include the most influential talk-radio voice, Rush Limbaugh, who has been contacted in recent days by a McCain emissary, according to Republican sources.

The McCain campaign is also wooing Sean Hannity. At least two top McCain supporters, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), made the pitch to Hannity, who has a radio show in addition to co-hosting his nightly Fox News television program.

And hey, it looks like all the money McCain’s supporters forked over to help Sam Brownback pay off his campaign debt is paying dividends:

After quietly bowing out of the presidential race last fall, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) launched an aggressive effort to court socially conservative leaders who have expressed skepticism about the candidacy of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Brownback is heading McCain’s outreach to Catholic voters and is also one of McCain’s chief advisers on judicial nominations, helping to organize meetings between the candidate and national social conservative leaders. Brownback has met with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, and Father Frank Pavone, a leader in the anti-abortion rights movement, to enlist their support.

On Thursday, Brownback will attend [the] Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual convention of conservative activists in Washington, to tout McCain. He will then travel home to persuade voters to support McCain in the Kansas caucus scheduled for Saturday.

In addition to this two-pronged strategy, McCain is also doing some good old fashioned personal pandering and courting one special Religious Right leader directly:

Conservative Christian leaders in Virginia have been fairly quiet about the state’s presidential primaries Tuesday, but the Republican candidates haven’t forgotten them.

The Rev. Jonathan Falwell, son of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, said Wednesday that he had talked with John McCain within the past 24 hours. Falwell said he wasn’t ready to endorse a candidate, but wanted to hear more from the Arizona senator on the issues.

McCain’s phone call to him resulted from discussions he’s had with the candidate’s campaign staff over the past couple of months, Falwell said.

One remaining test for McCain is how to deal with Pat Robertson, the one “agent of intolerance” whom he hasn’t yet embraced …. and don’t think that has gone unnoticed:

Asked by CNN’s Glenn Beck on Tuesday if he would vote for McCain, Robertson said: “I still have my misgivings. I’m not sure I can or not. I haven’t made up my mind yet for sure.”

McCain branded Robertson and the late Rev. Jerry Falwell as “agents of intolerance” during a campaign speech in Virginia Beach in 2000, days before Virginia’s primary election.

“We are the party of Ronald Reagan, not Pat Robertson,” McCain said at the time. He said he was not dismissing evangelicals, only “a few of their self-appointed leaders.”

“I had spent years and lots of money getting him and his buddies and his chairman on various Senate committees. And then to have him come down to my city and make a statement like that, it was outrageous.”

Granted, Robertson’s endorsement didn’t do much to help Rudy Giuliani, so perhaps his support isn’t vital.  But as long as McCain and his associates are trying to have it both ways and are out there making nice with fringe figures like Frank Pavone and Jonathan Falwell, they may as well just apologize to Robertson. That way Robertson can finally move on with his life and McCain can get back to working the media on his Straight Talk Express.