John McCain's campaign for the GOP presidential nomination had grown desperate when he lambasted Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell on the eve of the Virginia and Washington state primaries. They are symbols of the Christian Right's influence onthe Republican Party. And the two clergymen also are longtime targets of liberal Democrats and their media allies.
Of course, not all "Christian Right" voters dance to the tune of Robertson or Falwell, a point McCain himself made when he said he wasn't criticizing Christian voters. But the caveat fell on deaf ears.
Many religious voters realized that McCain was doing what Democrats often do: Using the Robertson and Falwell names as a metaphor to put down a segment of the voting public that is largely fundamentalist or evangelical in their Christian views -- and militantly pro-life.
These voters, however, do constitute about 30 percent of the Republican electorate -- and many work hard for the party at the grass-roots. Anyone serious about winning the GOP nomination would be a fool to alienate such a large and busy segment of the party.
The fact that McCain did just that -- deplorably calling Robertson and Falwell an "evil force" -- was a sure sign that Republicans, regardless of where they fell on the social, religious, or economic spectrum, weren't rallying to the Arizonan's cause.
So as he did in New Hampshire and Michigan, McCain had to call on independents and Democrats to put him over the top in Virginia and Washington state. The fact that he failed in Virginia -- Robertson's and Falwell's home state -- is no surprise.
But his hopes that his attacks on them would resonate in Washington State (known for being maverick and liberal) didn't materialize. McCain lost there just as big as he did in Virginia, thus reinstating Texas Gov. George W. Bush as the clear frontrunner heading into Super Tuesday next week.
Give the GOP rank-and-filers their due. Even those who are no big fans of the Christian Right realized people of faith are an important part of the party's coalition -- a coalition McCain was trying to crack by pitting Americans of different religious beliefs against each other in a vain bid to win enough Democrat and independent votes to "hijack" the GOP nomination.
That strategy obviously won't work. Unless McCain can find the key to rally real Republicans to his cause between now and next Tuesday his campaign will be as finished as Bill Bradley's on the Democratic side.
Incidentally, although it was understandable why McCain ripped Robertson after the 700 Club leader released a harshly anti-McCain radio message, there was no reason to lump Falwell with Robertson in his counter-attack. Falwell has not been publicly critical of McCain. In fact, he hasn't been involved in the campaign at all.