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Liberty University speech threatens McCain's maverick image
McClatchy Newspapers


May 15, 2006

WASHINGTON - From a Baptist stronghold in Lynchburg, Va., to New York's liberal Greenwich Village, Sen. John McCain is embarking on a marathon week of college commencement speeches that may foreshadow the challenges the Arizona Republican faces in positioning himself to run for president in 2008.

McCain's speech Saturday at the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg set off a debate over how much of a party maverick the senator really is, whether he will lose his appeal to independents later if he courts Christian conservatives now, and whether evangelicals would really rally behind a figure they spent years distrusting.




Already, McCain's fence-mending with Falwell has sparked debate among many students and faculty at two institutions in New York where McCain will speak next week: Ivy League Columbia College, where McCain's daughter Megan attends classes, and the liberal New School, where McCain's friend, former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, is president.

Falwell is a former McCain nemesis who may have helped cost him his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, and who once blamed feminists, gays and the abortion movement for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Students and teachers at the New School have collected more than 1,000 signatures for a petition asking that McCain be dropped from the May 19 commencement.

"I don't care frankly whether his heart is really with Jerry Falwell or the positions Jerry Falwell would take or whether he's slightly to the left," said Jan Clausen, a poet who teaches creative writing at the school and helped organize the drive.

"To me, the willingness to pander to that type of right-wing position is what counts. If that's where McCain is willing to go to get elected, it doesn't really matter what he thinks."

Benjamin Levitan, 21, a Democrat from Kentucky who will graduate from Columbia next week, said, "A lot of people here were turned off, thinking he doesn't represent our views or that by speaking at Liberty he's validating Jerry Falwell's views. But that doesn't make a lot of sense to me. He's speaking at so many different places, he can't be validating the views of every place he's speaking."

McCain, in a brief interview this week at the Capitol, seemed bewildered by the controversy. He said it will be "an honor" to speak to the students at Liberty. He also suggested his speech will steer clear of ideology.

He said he would speak about "the same thing I always talk about to young people at a most significant point in their lives, about their futures and about character and about all of the attributes that lead to a good successful life and career."

"I have always said that there's a place for the religious right in the Republican Party and they work very hard," McCain said. "I have also put my differences behind me that I had with anyone, with anyone, whether they be liberal, moderate or conservative, around the year 2000, and I don't look back in anger."

After losing the South Carolina presidential primary in 2000, and facing a smear campaign driven by evangelical supporters of George W. Bush, McCain gave an infamous speech branding Falwell, Pat Robertson and other evangelicals as "agents of intolerance" and corrupting influences on the Republican Party.

He said they were out to smear him "because I don't pander to them, because I don't ascribe to their failed philosophy that money is our message."

Falwell, in a telephone interview this week, said he had reached out to McCain last year in the spirit of Christian reconciliation, and that McCain, also being a Christian, agreed - not to agree on everything, but to get along.

"That was hardball politics, 2000 was," Falwell said. "You can't hold a man accountable for a few brash acts when he has been overwhelmingly a true American hero and a statesman."

Falwell said he would enthusiastically support McCain were he the Republican nominee.

"There's nothing that's happened that cannot be healed," he said.

"The secret is, like Mr. Bush has done, he needs to energize that (conservative voting) public. While they would never vote for the pro-choice and gay rights candidates of the Democratic Party, they could go fishing," Falwell said. "He has some work to do. He's got to meet with a few dozen leaders in small groups here and there and answer questions. And he may need to find if, in his heart, he can shift a little. On stem cell research, I think he'll get nailed by many of our people on that."


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