WASHINGTON -- Danielle Wibeto might be John McCain's worst nightmare. A 23-year old pro-life Christian, Wibeto travels around the country promoting a children's book--Justice Loves Babies, which she wrote with her twin sister, Darlene--about a child trying to save his unborn sister from being aborted. The Wibeto sisters, from a small, conservative town in central California and staunchly pro-life, are the kind of voters that McCain needs near unanimous support from if he has any chance of defeating Barack Obama. Will she vote for McCain? "I'm still praying on it," she says.
Wibeto is one of hundreds of pro-life voters who convened today for the start of the National Right to Life Convention in Arlington. The organization is gritting its teeth and swallowing hard to support John McCain, who has supported embryonic stem cell research and fiercely criticized George Bush in 2000 for his refusal to alter the Republican Platform to support abortions resulting from rape and incest. While the movement's leadership is toeing the party line, many of the delegates here expressed doubts--most of them will still vote for McCain, but some will stay home and others will likely not organize for the Arizona senator the way they did for Bush. (When I ask delegates here about their feelings on McCain, most just give a terse smile and say, "I'll vote for him.") If the Republican candidate for president has to spend time and money reassuring and energizing delegates to the National Right to Life Convention, he's not in good shape.
Over at the official McCain campaign booth, a flat-screen TV shows a video of McCain being interviewed about his time in Vietnam. The host asks him if he prayed to God while in Vietnam. "No," McCain answers. "When I was flying in combat I was rendering unto Caesar." His answer reveals a lot about McCain's difficulty connecting to the Christian right. Though quoting scripture, McCain's was a poor impersonation of President Bush, who has perfected the art of paying clever lip-service to the pro-life movement by speaking of his own faith and turning to God for counsel.
And so a lingering sense of resignation permeates the convention hall, most notably in President Wanda Franz's address to the general assembly. In a speech full of the movement's trademark rhetoric--"the blood of the innocent is still spilt over a million times each year"--Franz tepidly urges the audience to set aside their qualms about McCain. "The perfect is the enemy of the good," she says, employing odd rhetoric for a movement that thinks and speaks in moral absolutes. "There are no ideal candidates," she continues, quickly adding, "Well, very few." Franz's addendum is probably an allusion to Fred Thompson, the keynote speaker this morning. Thompson's presence serves as a bitter reminder that the movement didn't get its candidate of choice. (Introducing Thompson to the audience, NRLC Co-Executive Director Darla St. Martin seems absolutely smitten by the former Tennessee senator. "My favorite [of his movies] is Hunt for Red October!" she exclaims )
John McCain may seem the obvious choice for pro-lifers--he has called John Roberts and Samuel Alito his models for appointing judges--but choosing the lesser of two evils is going to be particularly difficult for a movement that has enjoyed seven years of a president willing to "call evil by its name."
And while many in the movement will stomach McCain's heresies and vote for him in November, others indicated they won't be so quick to forgive. John Regan has a booth to promote his book, Return of the Children, in which 40 million aborted fetuses ("babies") grow up in heaven and return to earth to bring God's love to abortionists and, of course, to lobby lawmakers. Regan is indignant at McCain's support for embryonic stem-cell research. "How can you be pro-life and willing to kill already existing human beings?" he asks me, glossing over a few biological details. "I could kill you maybe." Maybe I won't come back tomorrow.