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Maverick man

Eight years after a messy showdown with the religious right, Sen.

Maverick man

Arizona Sen. John McCain wishes to see again one person from the past: a prison guard at the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" where McCain-then a pilot in the U.S. Navy-endured five-and-a-half years of imprisonment, deprivation, and torture as a POW during the Vietnam War.

But it's not revenge that causes McCain's voice to catch when he speaks of this jailer. Instead, it's reconciliation.

During a recent campaign appearance in Washington, D.C., the Republican presidential candidate quietly described how the Vietnamese guard intervened one evening when McCain's captors bound him with ropes and left him to suffer in a painful position for hours-a common form of torture for POWs in the camp.

The guard silently entered the room and loosened McCain's bonds, relieving his pain. A few hours later, he returned to tighten the ropes before the next guard arrived.

Two months later, the prison officials allowed the American POWs briefly to step outside their cells on Christmas Day. "And who walks up and stands next to me but this guard?" said McCain. Without a word, the guard drew a cross in the dirt with his sandal. "And he just stood there," McCain remembered.

After a few moments, the guard rubbed out the cross and walked away. "I will never forget that man," said a visibly moved McCain. "He's the one person I've always wanted to have an opportunity to be with again."

McCain later told WORLD that he doesn't gloss over the difficulty of war, or of campaigning for the presidency-but he said, "My life has been characterized by reconciliation."

McCain's campaign for the White House has also been characterized by the theme of reconciliation: The candidate is courting evangelical voters after years of acrimony with some religious right leaders. He is talking more often about issues like abortion and traditional marriage that represent top concerns for the conservative core of the Republican Party.

McCain is still a maverick. While the candidate strikes a conciliatory tone on the campaign trail, he embraces positions unpopular among some Republicans. On immigration, for example, McCain earlier this year sponsored legislation with Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts that included a temporary worker program and a path to citizenship for many illegal immigrants already in the country. That bill failed, but some conservatives assailed the senator for a proposal they considered akin to amnesty for illegal immigrants.

This year, though, McCain is a politicized maverick. He has adjusted his stance on immigration, saying that he would focus on border security first. He is open to compromises he seemed closed to in 2000, when he won the New Hampshire primary, largely by appealing to moderates and independents. "I say to independents, Democrats, Libertarians, vegetarians: Come on over," McCain said at political rallies at the time.

After New Hampshire, though, an ugly couple of weeks of campaigning in South Carolina led to a McCain nosedive.

McCain fought opposition to him on policy grounds but also rumors that he had fathered an illegitimate child. Richard Hand, a professor from Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., circulated an email with the false allegations, and anonymous fliers and recorded phone messages reporting the rumors popped up around the state as well. Actually, McCain and his wife, Cindy, had adopted the child in question from Bangladesh, and McCain was furious.

When he lost the South Carolina primary, McCain responded by lambasting some Christian right leaders. He told an audience in Virginia: "We are the party of Ronald Reagan, not Pat Robertson. . . . We are the party of Abraham Lincoln, not Bob Jones." Later, the senator referred to Liberty University president Jerry Falwell as an "agent of intolerance." Any remaining chance at nomination for McCain went up in smoke.

The bridge with evangelicals seemed burned until 2005, when McCain and Falwell met to clear the air. Several months later, McCain marched next to Falwell into Liberty University's basketball arena to deliver the school's commencement address. Falwell praised McCain, saying: "The ilk of John McCain is very scarce, very small."

One year later, Falwell died in his university office. McCain told WORLD he was glad he reconciled with the minister before his death, and he said his feelings about the Christian right have changed. "I was angry," he said. "And I'm not angry anymore." McCain said he hopes other evangelicals will "do as I do, and that's look forward, not back."

For McCain, part of looking forward-and connecting with evangelicals-is talking more openly about his religious beliefs. McCain grew up in the Episcopal Church but recently said that he is Baptist. For several years, McCain and his family have attended North Phoenix Baptist Church, a large evangelical congregation in Arizona, though McCain is not a member.

When reporters pressed McCain on his denominational affiliation, McCain said: "The most important thing is I am a Christian." But the senator seemed uncomfortable discussing what that means in his personal life: "It plays a role in my life. . . . Do I advertise my faith? Do I talk about it all the time? No."

McCain is talking more about issues that resonate with social conservatives like traditional marriage and abortion. McCain says he is committed to "the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman." And he constantly reminds voters of his consistent pro-life voting record.

But some social conservatives find gaps in McCain's positions: They complain that he voted against a Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA) to protect traditional marriage, and they vigorously disagree with his support for embryonic stem-cell research.

On protecting traditional marriage, McCain says the issue should be left up to the states. (Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson holds a similar position.) On embryonic stem-cell research, McCain says he believes that life begins at conception, but "the Bible also tells us to heal the sick."

Another McCain policy riles some evangelicals even more than the typical hot-button issues: campaign finance reform. The Senate passed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law in 2002 after years of rancorous debate. Among other provisions, the legislation curtails attempts by nonprofit organizations to influence voters toward particular candidates for the 60 days prior to an election.

Conservatives and liberals alike have assailed the legislation as an attack on freedom of speech, but McCain is unapologetic: "I believe that money is power, and it buys you a bigger megaphone. I think we ought to give every American an equal voice in the government."

McCain told WORLD he knows the legislation is a point of contention with some evangelical leaders, but said: "If they think that's the overriding issue and qualification to be president, then I respect their support of another candidate."

Some evangelicals have looked at McCain's positives. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission noted McCain's contrition for his failed first marriage: "John McCain has acknowledged that he was unfaithful, and it was a major cause of the breakup of his marriage. He's expressed regret for that. . . . He has been in a second marriage now for more than 20 years."

But Land added that McCain's broad-ranging political views make some conservatives nervous: "It's that kind of uncomfortability with his unpredictability-the maverick nature that makes him so popular with independents-that gives conservatives pause."

Earlier this month, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., a pro-life Catholic with strong backing from evangelicals, endorsed the senator. The endorsement was a huge boost for McCain and led some conservative Christians to give his record a second look.

They've seen that McCain, a vocal opponent of pork-barrel projects and wasteful government spending, also voted against Bush's tax cuts, complaining of "a wealth gap that worries me." McCain has called for costly legislation to fight global warming: "The world is already feeling the powerful effects of global warming, and far more dire consequences are predicted if we let the growing deluge of greenhouse gas emissions continue, and wreak havoc with God's creation."

Whether global warming has wreaked havoc on the earth is debatable, but there's one issue that has undeniably wreaked havoc on McCain's presidential campaign: the war in Iraq. More than any other issue, McCain's support for the war has the potential both to bring him conservative support and to sink his White House bid.

McCain supported the invasion of Iraq but quickly criticized the Bush administration's strategy. In 2004, McCain warned that the military didn't have enough forces on the ground to complete the mission. As the situation in Iraq deteriorated, McCain suggested a surge in troops. Bush eventually agreed, and the troop surge began last year.

McCain's criticism for the Bush administration has been intense: "I think that Donald Rumsfeld will go down in history as one of the worst secretaries of defense." But McCain insists America needs to stay in Iraq: "If we leave, chaos and genocide will ensue."

McCain's refusal to back down as the war's popularity among Americans plummeted has cost him support: "It's hurt me enormously," he told WORLD, "but I'd rather win a war than a campaign."

In the meantime, the retired naval aviator wears a daily reminder of the war's toll: A black metal bracelet around his right wrist bears the name and picture of Cpl. Matthew Stanley, a 22-year-old soldier killed in Iraq last December.

At a New Hampshire campaign event in September, Lynn Savage, the fallen soldier's mother, asked McCain to wear the bracelet in honor of her son.

"All I can tell you is I will wear this bracelet for as long as it is able to be worn," said McCain, fighting back tears. "I will also do everything in my power, everything, at the risk of anything in my future, to ensure that your son's sacrifice was not in vain."

Savage called McCain's response "wonderful" and added: "I'm a die-hard Democrat, but I think I just changed my mind."

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.