McCAIN’S BOX….Peter Wallsten has a good piece in the LA Times today about John McCain’s problem with social conservatives. He begins with an anecdote:

As the architect of Ohio’s ballot measure against gay marriage, Phil Burress helped draw thousands of conservative voters to the polls in 2004, most of whom also cast ballots to reelect President Bush. So Burress was not surprised when two high-level staffers from John McCain’s campaign dropped by his office, asking for his help this fall.

What surprised Burress was how badly the meeting went. He says he tried but failed to make the McCain team understand how much work remained to overcome the skepticism of social conservatives. Burress ended up cutting off the campaign officials as they spoke. “He doesn’t want to associate with us,” Burress now says of McCain, “and we don’t want to associate with him.”

The press has always made too much of McCain’s alleged maverickiness. The LA Times itself tried to force feed this narrative to its readers yesterday, suggesting the McCain wasn’t really all that different from Barack Obama. But as Matt Yglesias points out, even the Times was forced to concede that McCain holds doctrinaire conservative positions on, among other things, Iraq, Iran, health care, taxes, trade, abortion rights, and gun control. There’s really just not much maverickiness there, and certainly not much similarity to Obama.

That said, though, there’s no question that McCain’s heart just isn’t in it when it comes to social conservatism. On issues like gay rights and immigration he’s pretty moderate for a Republican, and even on abortion, where his record is pure conservative, his rhetoric tends to be mild. He was obviously uncomfortable begging for Jerry Falwell’s support last year, and although he was happy enough to get some high profile evangelical support this year from John Hagee and Rod Parsley, he was also happy to throw them under the bus pretty quickly when their odious views finally got picked up by the mainstream media and became a minor embarrassment. That experience will almost certainly cause McCain to keep even more of an arm’s length from evangelicals during the campaign than he would have anyway.

Given all this, it’s hard for me to see how he wins Ohio — the subject of Wallsten’s piece. George Bush only won it by a whisker in 2004, and Obama is a much more formidable candidate than John Kerry was. Add to that GOP fatigue, fundraising woes, and the economic downturn, and then add to that lukewarm support from evangelicals for a candidate who’s obviously not one of them, and it’s hard to see how McCain doesn’t run half a million votes or more behind Bush’s numbers. Even if you cut that in half because there are some voters who just won’t punch the button for the black guy, McCain is doomed. And if he doesn’t win Ohio, there’s no way he picks up enough votes elsewhere to make up for it.

In a nutshell, this is McCain’s problem, and I don’t see any way out of the box for him. His entire persona is based on being a moderate, reasonable guy, and if he keeps that up he loses a big chunk of the evangelical vote. But if he tries to move right and pick up the evangelicals, the independents will desert him in droves and vote for Obama. He just has no way of putting together a winning coalition.

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