John McCain is running for president backward.
Last week, the lucky-in-his-enemies Arizona senator locked up the Republican nomination, ending a battle of partisan attrition. Mr. McCain won in part because conservatives could never find a worthy alternative to rally behind to defeat him.
The standard operating procedure at this point would be for Senator McCain to pivot toward the political center to position himself for the general election. Instead, Mr. McCain finds himself having to tack rightward to satisfy a disgruntled, skeptical conservative base.
As he moves in that direction, Mr. McCain faces twin challenges: winning over dissatisfied movement conservatives while not alienating the independent-minded voters who have always represented his base of support.
Thus far, Mr. McCain's fence-mending project with the right wing is off to an awkward, even ugly, start. The same week he secured the nomination, the self-styled "maverick" got himself wrapped around the axle of a no-win controversy involving one of America's most radical religious conservatives, John Hagee.
Perhaps you had never heard of Mr. Hagee until last week. He heads a San Antonio megachurch and is president of a new organization with the rather harmless - if misleading - title of Christians United for Israel. Ostensibly a defender of Jews and Israel, Mr. Hagee and his CUFI followers harbor some frightening ideas about the always-imminent Armageddon and the divine Rapture they predict will follow.
Essentially, Mr. Hagee believes the end times are not only near, but can't arrive soon enough. The shortest path to Armageddon, he predicts, is a major nuclear conflagration in which Israel is forced to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, thereby prompting the Russians, who depend on Iranian oil, to strike back, causing a nuclear holocaust that opens the skies for a rapturous moment of accounting during which he and his followers will be lifted to heaven.
If you think followers of Mr. Hagee's wacky prophecies are few, think again. His book, Jerusalem Countdown, has sold more than a half-million copies; tens of millions tune in to his radio and television programs.
At least Mr. Hagee's attitude toward Jews, albeit instrumental, is more sanguine than his feelings about the Roman Catholic Church, which he has called "the great whore" (he now says he was referring to the "apostate church" - Christians who "embrace the false cult system of Jew-hatred and anti-Semitism"). He also characterized Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans as a wrathful god's verdict for a city scheduled a few days later to host a homosexual parade.
In short, Mr. Hagee is a false prophet and certifiable kook. Yet he remains a mainstay in national Republican politics. Attendees at his annual conference in Washington last year included former congressional heavyweights such as former Republican House leaders Tom DeLay and Newt Gingrich, and the increasingly reactionary Connecticut "independent Democrat," Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman.
So when Mr. McCain said he "was pleased to have the endorsement" of Mr. Hagee, the Republican candidate stirred up a bee's nest of political problems. Catholic League President Bill Donohue started buzzing immediately.
"There are plenty of staunch evangelical leaders who are pro-Israel but are not anti-Catholic," said Mr. Donohue, a self-described conservative who condemned George W. Bush in 2000 for giving a speech at anti-Catholic Bob Jones University, in a news release. "John Hagee is not one of them. Indeed, for the past few decades, he has waged an unrelenting war against the Catholic Church."
Facing potential electoral fallout from pivotal Catholic voters, Mr. McCain quickly changed his tune, saying late last week that he repudiates "any comments that are made, including Pastor Hagee's, if they are anti-Catholic or offensive to Catholics."
The political-religious box in which Mr. McCain finds himself provides little room for maneuvering: He needs the support of the millions of highly motivated religious conservative voters but has risked alienating Catholic voters who will be critical in the general election. His rightward tack further risks turning off the many Hispanics and independents who admire him.
Such is the fate of a man running for the White House in reverse. And you can bet the Hagee-Donohue flap is not the last time between now and November when the Straight Talk Express will start weaving from lane to lane.
Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.