DES MOINES, Iowa — As he addressed a room full of members of the Iowa Christian Alliance in the small city of Cedar Falls, Sen. John McCain demonstrated how hard it is for him to find his way through the tangled forest of Christian right doctrine.

There’s no doubt he believes in God. He gave a moving expression of faith in his speech. He spoke of his own beliefs, and then told how they were shared by others in the most unlikely places. He related a story of how a North Vietnamese prison guard once drew a cross on the ground next to McCain when he was a prisoner of war.

Yet he insists on invoking God in a manner not popular among Republican conservatives. In the same speech, for example, he said that although he favors restrictions on illegal immigrants, they “are still God’s children and they are also human beings.” That’s not acceptable to anti-immigrant conservatives, religious or not. They appear to want nothing less than to put immigrants on trains and ship them south of the border.

The Christian right is a major power in the Republican Party here, as elsewhere. “Evangelicals are what win or lose for you in the caucuses on the Republican side,” said Chase Martyn, managing editor of the Web site Iowa Independent.

The evangelicals will be a key factor in determining the outcome of the Republican race. McCain, the polls say, is trailing Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, and Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, whose Mormon religion is hurting him with the religious right. McCain is bunched with former Sen. Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani, the ex-mayor of New York. However, McCain, dismissed by the media as a loser just a few months ago, has hung on and is now considered a real contender.

The fact is that most American voters don’t share evangelicals’ strict religious beliefs. Fundamentalists might be able to power a conservative to victory in the Iowa caucuses or a primary election, but they, alone, don’t win an election In November. So a successful Republican candidate must bridge the gap between the religious right and the majority of Americans.

Ronald Reagan was a master at this. As governor of California, he signed the nation’s most liberal law permitting abortions. In a move that should have earned the permanent enmity of the religious right, he opposed a rabidly anti-gay ballot measure. His opposition was the major factor in its defeat. Yet he charmed the Christian conservatives — and reversed himself on abortion — and got their support when he ran for president.

President Bush also knows how to bridge the gap. He signed the bill giving the late Terry Schiavo’s parents a final chance to go to court to keep her alive. He credits being born again for saving him from drink. But he’s able to do it with the wink and attitude of an old Deke fraternity boy, as if to say those sinful days weren’t all that bad.

When McCain spoke to the Iowa Christian Alliance in Cedar Falls he, too, was trying to bridge the gap between the religious right and the rest of the country.

More than 250, filling the room, showed up on an icy night and gave him a friendly but not overwhelmingly enthusiastic reception. He was warmly introduced by Steve Scheffler, president of the alliance. Scheffler is not endorsing in the race, and neither is the alliance.

McCain thanked the audience “for your commitment to Judeo-Christian values upon which this nation was founded.” He said: “I am a conservative. My record shows I am a conservative.” On abortion, he said “the rights of the unborn should be respected.” Judges, he said, “should not legislate from the bench.”

But such speeches, even those as well attended as this one, are not what is most important in winning the support of alliance members who will attend the caucuses Thursday night. What probably matters more is the “2008 Iowa Christian Alliance Presidential Caucus Voters Guide,” which was distributed in churches around the state. It gives the candidates’ stands on 10 issues, based on their response to questionnaires.

Most of McCain’s answers would win him admission to any right-wing club in the nation.

He supports repeal of Roe v. Wade, opposes ratification of the Kyoto treaty as well as extension of federal hate crime laws to include sexual orientation. He is even against a proposal that exists so far only in the minds of paranoid ultraconservatives — a “NAFTA superhighway” running from Canada to Mexico.

But on one issue of particular importance in the world of the religious right, McCain split with the Iowa Christian Alliance: gay marriage. In Iowa, a county judge overturned an Iowa law banning same-sex marriages, although he later suspended his ruling pending an appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court. This prompted a statement by alliance President Scheffler and Morris Hurd, calling for a U.S. constitutional amendment banning such unions: “… Again we see that the judges view themselves as arrogant aristocrats who know so much more than the rest of us. … In recent years, Biblical standards are almost completely abandoned and ignored.”

McCain does not favor such an amendment. He did not reply to the alliance question. In fact, when such a constitutional amendment died in the Senate in 2004, McCain said the proposal was “antithetical in every way to the core philosophy of Republicans. 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.” But he does support an amendment to the Arizona constitution banning gay marriage and denying government benefits to unmarried couples.

I talked to Christian Alliance President Scheffler the day after McCain’s appearance in Cedar Falls and asked him how he felt about McCain’s views on the issue. “It’s important to me,” he said. “It’s not a deal-breaker. But it is a big thing with a lot of people.”

Also unpopular with conservatives, he said, was McCain’s authorship of the federal campaign reform law because it limits the campaigning of state parties and other groups. However, “he’s more acceptable than not,” Scheffler said.

The next day, I watched Huckabee talk to a crowd in the upstairs room in a restaurant in Indianola, a small city south of Des Moines. An experienced man of the pulpit, he has the affable, mildly humorous manner of a popular minister. Unlike McCain, he does favor a U.S. constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

The room was too small for the crowd. It showed more enthusiasm for Huckabee than the Iowa Christian Alliance group did for McCain. Adults and kids extended down the stairs into the restaurant’s main room. I stood among them and watched the intensity on their faces as they strained to hear Huckabee.

Afterward, I walked down the street to hear the man the religious right won’t accept, Giuliani. He has had too many marriages. He is too soft on gays. He is too secular. When someone asked him about a religious matter, he said “the Constitution says no religious test at all and that is my stand.”

The Christian right is suspicious of McCain, but he needs these conservatives. He’ll need the mainstream more, however, if he makes it past the Iowa caucuses and the Jan. 8 New Hampshire primary. Without Reagan’s charm or Bush’s wink, he’ll have trouble bridging the gap.

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