IRVINE, Calif. — Tom Christian is the kind of religious voter that John McCain and Barack Obama were courting when they went to church this weekend. Conservative. Republican. But open to either of them.
If his reaction after watching them this weekend is any indication, Obama impressed people with his ease talking the language of faith, no small feat for a Democrat. But McCain may have shored up support from this critical group.
"When I hear Obama, I think, yeah. McCain comes across as a grouchy old man. But the contrast on the issues eventually becomes clear," Christian said after watching the two candidates speak at his evangelical church, the Saddleback church in his hometown of Lake Forest.
"Obama always makes a better impression," Christian said. "But McCain was clear, on issues like life. He said life begins at conception. That's my position. He believes what I believe. ... I like Obama. But I'll be voting for McCain."
That kind of reaction could make a big difference for McCain, who has been struggling to win the kind of record support from this key voting bloc that helped fellow Republican George W. Bush eke out a close re-election battle in 2004.
Bush took nearly 80 percent of the white evangelical vote in 2004, a key reason he won such make-or-break states as Ohio, where evangelicals make up a quarter of the vote.
McCain until now has struggled to reach 70 percent among white evangelicals. Among his problems: He once called prominent evangelicals Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell "agents of intolerance" when they opposed his 2000 presidential bid against Bush. And he's long been reticent to talk about his faith.
Both of those are changing. For one, he reconciled with Falwell before he died. And McCain is more willing to talk about the role of Christianity in his life, as he did during the Saddleback forum when he recalled humane treatment from a fellow Christian in a North Vietnamese prison camp.
He is also stressing the conservative stands on hot-button issues such as abortion that appeal to religious conservatives.
Yet religious conservatives are hardly monolithic. Abortion and marriage remain top concerns. But as Saddleback's pastor, Rick Warren, has emphasized, so is helping the poor.
Adam Hutchinson, a Saddleback church member from Lake Forest, is open to Obama.
He welcomed Obama's talk about helping people, and what Hutchinson called his "visionary appeal to the heart." He particularly liked it when Obama said he'd changed his mind about welfare reform since his initial opposition.
"I was surprised to hear that from a Democrat," he said. "That's refreshing. It's one of the reasons I'm undecided."
His wife, Megan, also said she was open to both, but that she emerged more impressed by McCain.
In 2004, she knew she was for Bush "from the get-go." Partly because she really liked Bush, and partly because she really disliked Democrat John Kerry.
This time, however, she was not as enthusiastic about McCain or the Republican Party. "We've had a Republican and I have moments when I approve and moments when I don't approve." And she's not at all turned off by Obama like she was with Kerry.
After watching both men closely Saturday evening, she said, she still liked both. But she might have liked McCain a little more. "McCain won the hearts of more people," she said. "Tonight, he won my heart."
Ultimately, McCain may have little chance at matching the 78 percent support that Bush won in 2004. That was a 10-point jump from Bush's support in 2000, and some of it may have come from the dislike evangelicals had for Kerry. They not only don't have the same passion against Obama, many actually like him.
But as polling by a California-based Christian marketing firm, the Barna Group, showed recently, McCain can hope to win more of that vote than he's been drawing so far.
"The more conservative element of the Christian population is slowly coming to grips with what an Obama presidency might be like," said George Barna, the firm's founder.
"As the finer points of a wide range of issues are clarified by each nominee, the initial excitement about Senatot Obama has lost some luster. ... If Senator McCain converts such apprehensions into votes, this will be a closer race than many have anticipated."
For more on the Saddleback church forum on faith, www.rickwarrennews.com
For more on the Barna Group, www.barna.org