Jeremiah Reich

A campaign blog.
May 23 2008 2:01 PM

Jeremiah Reich

John McCain finally rejected, denounced, and bused over Pastor John Hagee, whose remarks about the Catholic Church have been dogging McCain for months. The final straw was a sermon in which Hagee, citing the book of Jeremiah, called Adolf Hitler a "hunter" sent by God to drive the Jews back to Israel, which would pave the way for the second coming of Jesus Christ.

The rejection was long overdue. In March, McCain drew fire over Hagee’s statements calling the Catholic Church "the great whore" and a "false cult system." McCain said he disagreed with any comments "if they are anti-Catholic or offensive to Catholics," but thought they were "taken out of context." A McCain spokeswoman clarified : "While we welcome his support, it shouldn't be seen as a wholesale endorsement of all of Mr. Hagee's views." But McCain did not reject his endorsement until now .

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So what changed? You could argue the Hitler shout-out was the deciding factor—any time a supporter drops the H-bomb, he or she becomes radioactive. But take a look at demographics McCain needs to win in the general.

In Florida, a key battleground state, McCain can count on the support of Catholics no matter what. He won 40 percent of the GOP Catholic vote in the primary there (Obama won 22 percent in the Democratic race), and Florida’s Hispanics have voted Republican in the last few presidential elections. McCain’s stance on immigration makes him especially popular among that group. Despite criticism from Catholic leaders over Hagee’s remarks, McCain is unlikely to lose that demographic.

Jews are a different story. Florida Jews are famously skeptical of Barack Obama, particularly on his support of Israel. (Rep. Robert Wexler called Southern Florida "the most concentrated area in the country in terms of misinformation" about Obama.) Hence Obama’s ongoing courtship of Jewish leaders and recent visits to Boca Raton and Miami. McCain, by contrast, is seen as unwaveringly hawkish when it comes to Israel. As one older Jewish Floridian told the New York Times , "The people here, liberal people, will not vote for Obama because of his attitude towards Israel . They’re going to vote for McCain."

In other words, now would be a bad time for McCain to risk alienating Jewish voters. At a certain point, the harm of Hagee's remarks starts to outweigh his popularity among evangelicals.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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