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As his poll numbers continue to climb dramatically with Republicans, John McCain has been extending an olive branch to evangelicals in the party. But evidence is mixed over whether he can win their support.

In the first six Republican matchups, the Arizona senator has had not seen the major successes among evangelical voters that have boosted rivals Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee.

Among Republicans who identified themselves as evangelical or born again, Huckabee won Iowa with 46 percent over Romney (19%) and McCain (10%). The New Hampshire evangelical vote was split between Huckabee (28%), McCain (28%), and Romney (27%). In Michigan, Nevada, and South Carolina, McCain fell behind Huckabee, and in Nevada even Ron Paul gathered more votes (13%) than McCain (9%) did. But despite his strong overall showing in Florida, McCain (30%) barely overtook Huckabee (29%) and Romney (29%) among evangelicals.

A September 2007 Pew Forum survey showed that 36 percent of evangelicals are reluctant to vote for Romney because of his Mormon faith, and some are concerned about his "flip flopping" on issues like abortion. Still, McCain has not been able to attract many evangelical votes from Romney as his overall poll numbers have climbed.

Many journalists attribute McCain's lackluster support to a comment he made during the 2000 election, when he described Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell as "agents of intolerance." But Wheaton College political science professor Amy Black says that comment would not significantly hurt him among evangelicals eight years later. However, she says, other issues from the 2000 campaign may be limiting his appeal.

"Many voters will remember McCain as the more liberal option from 2000," Black told Christianity Today. ...

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February 2008

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