Evangelicals who met privately with Sen. John McCain in June are stunned by what they've heard from the candidate over the last week: McCain says he wouldn't rule out choosing a running mate who isn't pro-life.
In an interview with The Weekly Standard, McCain specifically mentioned former Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, a Pennsylvania Republican who holds pro-abortion views.
"I think that the pro-life position is one of the important aspects or fundamentals of the Republican Party," McCain said. "And I also feel that-and I'm not trying to equivocate here-that Americans want us to work together. You know, Tom Ridge is one of the great leaders and he happens to be pro-choice. And I don't think that that would necessarily rule Tom Ridge out."
McCain has also recently huddled with Sen. Joe Lieberman, a pro-abortion independent and Al Gore's running mate in 2000, stoking growing speculation of Lieberman as a potential pick for McCain.
That leaves many social conservatives confounded. Just as McCain gained steam against Obama, he floated an idea that could deflate scores of conservatives and evangelicals in a moment: With many wary of McCain's conservative credentials, the senator's running mate could be critical to defining his candidacy, and a pro-abortion pick could be disastrous for his bid.
From his office in the battleground state of Ohio, Phil Burress speculated about just how disastrous such a choice could be. Burress is president of Citizens for Community Values (CCV), a pro-life and influential grassroots organization based in Cincinnati. McCain's camp reached out to Burress' group in June, meeting with Burress and six other prominent evangelicals for two hours. That led to a June 29 face-to-face meeting with McCain. Burress-who had been wary about supporting McCain-changed his mind: "That meeting turned me around 180 degrees," Burress told WORLD.
Burress said McCain appeared sincere and serious about his pro-life and pro-marriage views. After the June meeting, Burress was poised to deliver for McCain in Ohio: With nearly 1 million contacts in the CCV database, Burress began planning mailings that would tout McCain's pro-life position.
Burress told WORLD he was also in talks with other Christian groups to send material to their state mailing lists: 100,000 contacts from Focus on the Family, 100,000 from the American Family Association, and some 50,000 from the Family Research Council, according to Burress.
In a state where evangelicals likely helped push President Bush over the top and into the White House in 2004, McCain had scored big, especially considering speculation that many evangelicals might not support him.
Then came August 13: When Burress heard McCain's comments about the possibility of a pro-abortion running mate, the grassroots gears screeched to a halt. "The train has stopped in its tracks," Burress told WORLD.
Until McCain announces his running mate, Burress says all plans for grassroots activities are on hold. Political observers say McCain will likely announce his running mate next Friday- the day after Obama delivers his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention.
Burress and other social conservatives remain hopeful that McCain will pick a pro-life candidate, and Burress says he's confident that evangelicals in Ohio would enthusiastically support him if he does. If he doesn't? "It will feel like a kick in the stomach," said Burress. "And you don't feel like working very hard when you've been kicked in the stomach."
The mounting tension raises an obvious question: Why would McCain flirt with such a risky notion? Perhaps the senator wants to maintain his maverick image with moderates and independents, a coveted group of voters for both McCain and Obama.
If so, Burress points out a flaw in McCain's strategy: "The middle isn't organized," he said. "We are."