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Republican presidential candidate John McCain publicly thanked two prominent conservative Christian leaders Saturday who have rallied to his defense in recent days.

"I was very pleased to see comments made by people like Tony Perkins and Dr. Richard Land," McCain told reporters after a rally in Nashville, Tenn. "I appreciate the words that they have been using."

Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, a conservative public policy group, and Land, a leader in the 16- million member Southern Baptist Convention, have criticized McCain in the past. Perkins told the New York Times that he has "no residual issue with John McCain," while Land told the newspaper McCain "is strongly pro-life."

McCain, 71, has had strained relations with the religious wing of his party since he criticized evangelists Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell during the 2000 presidential campaign. He has been trying to mend fences in advance of Feb. 5, when more than 20 states have presidential preference contests and distribute more than 40 percent of the delegates to the Republican presidential nominating convention.

"I will continue to reach out to all parts of the party but I did not call anyone," the Arizona senator said today. McCain's acknowledgement that he is not proactively reaching out to conservative leaders comes a day after he told reporters that he doesn't listen to conservative Rush Limbaugh's radio show.

Limbaugh Attacks

Limbaugh, the syndicated radio talk show host, has been attacking McCain. He has said a McCain nomination would "destroy" the Republican Party and, after McCain won the Florida primary, said the Arizona senator "is not the choice of conservatives."

"I don't listen to him," McCain said yesterday. "There's a certain trace of masochism in my family but not that deep."

McCain, barnstorming across the country before the Feb. 5 nominating races, told reporters he "assumes" that he will be his party's nominee.

"I hope I am not too confident about Tuesday. I am guardedly optimistic," he said. "I sense a feeling of momentum, but I wouldn't take anything for granted."

McCain's campaign today announced that he has been endorsed by Republican Representatives Peter King of New York, Jim Gerlach of Pennsylvania, Darrell Issa of California, Randy Kuhl of New York, Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey and Deborah Pryce of Ohio.

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