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McCain's Chief Evangelizer, a Long Way from Home

By Alec MacGillis
Things may seem tough at the moment for Sen. John McCain. But as he battles the aura of inevitability that Barack Obama tried to conjure on the other side of the Atlantic, it's worth recalling that things looked far bleaker for McCain just one year ago, before he rallied to win his party's nomination.

Few are in a better position to offer that historical perspective than Marlys Popma, whom The Trail ran into by happenstance over the weekend outside McCain's national headquarters in Arlington, Va., where she is now installed as a little-known but major player, charged with leading McCain's national outreach to evangelical voters.

Popma, 52, is legendary social conservative activist in Iowa, where she became a leader of the anti-abortion movement after a revelatory personal experience: while engaged at age 22 to a man she loved, she became pregnant by another, and decided to keep the baby and marry the father. Pompa remains happily married to him three decades later and now holds such sway among Iowa's social conservatives that Republicans running for president strive to secure her support in turning out voters at the Iowa Caucuses.

In an interview in Des Moines in the spring of 2007, Pompa said she had prayed at length about her choice of candidate in 2008 before choosing McCain, knowing that many would follow in her steps. She was aware that her decision surprised many of her fellow social conservatives, since McCain did not have the strongest ties with the evangelical community, but she said had decided that McCain was much better on the movement's issues than many realized.

Despite winning Popma's backing, McCain foundered badly last summer in Iowa. At the time, it looked as though former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, with his millions of dollars in spending, might run away with the state. Popma grew so demoralized that she announced July 17 that she was quitting the campaign, saying it appeared as if McCain would not even be seriously contesting Iowa.

But she changed her mind within a day -- after getting calls from former senator Phil Gramm, a top McCain backer, and McCain himself, assuring her that the campaign would compete in Iowa.

McCain ended up tied for third place in the caucuses, but Mike Huckabee's victory was a blow to Romney, helping clear McCain's road to the nomination. And Popma now has been given a task of paramount importance for a campaign hoping to hold together George W. Bush's winning coalition of 2004.

Earlier this summer she left her family's home in tiny Colfax, Iowa, for a hotel in Crystal City, Va., the island of boxy 1960s office buildings near Reagan National Airport where McCain has his headquarters. Standing out from the Beltway crowd in her flannel shirt and black jeans, Popma admitted that it was rather surreal to find herself in Crystal City helping run a national campaign just one year after quitting the campaign in frustration during the primary season.

"I never wanted to leave John McCain. I just thought that the campaign in Iowa was done," she said. "And here we are. I've never been so glad."

She said the evangelical outreach was going well, rejecting the notion that McCain's ties with that community are tenuous and pointing to evangelical leader James Dobson's recent statement of support for McCain as proof that the effort was picking up steam. "John is an amazing man. I just hope the American people get it right," she said. "I always thought he was one of the most misunderstood conservatives in America. More people are getting to see what I saw when the Lord directed me to him."

Popma said she was particularly motivated by the prospect of Obama becoming president, because of his strongly pro-abortion rights stance, which extends to opposition to banning the procedure known as partial-birth abortion (though Obama has softened that opposition in recent weeks.) "We're running against the most liberal candidate ever," she said. After surviving breast cancer, Popma said, she had become more focused on achieving what she sees as the main goal of her life as an activist: "I want to see Roe vs. Wade go down in my lifetime."

"You just want to see those things you work for come to pass," she said. "John McCain is our best chance for a conservative Supreme Court."

As engaged as she is in the campaign, though, Popma can't help but miss Iowa, which she never let herself leave for this long back when her children were still at home. Her family lives 17 miles from the nearest stoplight and a half mile from the nearest house, overlooking a field of corn that she says is now probably about six feet tall. "I miss the quiet and solace," she said. "When you stand out on the deck at night you see a sea of fireflies, thousands."

Posted at 4:23 PM ET on Jul 28, 2008  | Category:  Cast of Characters
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John McCain's opposition to reproductive freedom of conscience for women should cost him the votes of all women except those who foolishly wish to surrender their rights of conscience to male lawmakers intent on maintaining male dominance in our society.

Posted by: Edd Doerr | July 29, 2008 12:03 PM

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Posted by: FreddieMercury | July 29, 2008 12:35 AM

I wish Popma had endorsed Governor Huckabee instead. But since McCain is the nominee, I'll still support him, although I hope he'll choose Huckabee as his running mate.

Survey USA took a series of polls to determine the VP candidate (out of Huckabee, Lieberman, Pawlenty, and Romney) who would help John McCain the most.

They took polls in PA, NM, VA, CA, OH, IA, KS, WI, NE, OR, NY, MA, MN, AL, KY, and MO. Of these, PA, NM, VA, OH, IA, OR, MN, and MO are generally considered to be possible battleground states in November.

In almost every case, Governor Mike Huckabee did best. He even had a slight lead in Massachusetts where Romney was once Governor!

Rasmussen took a similar poll within the last few days. They compared Crist, Huckabee, Jindal, Lieberman, Palin, and Romney.

Huckabee had the highest favorability and net favorability rating. The net was +8% compared to -6% for Romney.

http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/election_20082/2008_presidential_election/huckabee_lieberman_have_highest_favorables_among_possible_mccain_veep_choices

Also, there have been five bellwether states - OH, MO, LA, KY, and AR - that have correctly predicted the winner of the General Election for each of the past eight elections (dating back to 1976). Of those, in the GOP Primaries, Huckabee won the popular vote in two of them (AR and LA), coming in second to McCain in the other three. McCain won the popular vote in three of them (OH, MO and KY), coming in second to Huckabee in the other two. The margin between the two in the state of MO was extremely narrow. And in the state of KY, Huckabee even managed to come in second to John McCain three and a half months after he suspended his campaign and endorsed McCain.

Governor Huckabee would be a great Vice President. Even Mitt Romney thinks so! At a town hall meeting back in December (before Iowa) he was asked what he thought of Huckabee as VP. Romney replied: "Sure, he's a wonderful person... He'd make a great vice president."

Posted by: Mrs. P | July 28, 2008 7:54 PM

JakeD said:

"And, for the record, I am not 'praying for forgiveness' for having supported and voted for GWB (twice)."

I say:

I agree! GWB may not have been the best president ever, but he has still done a great job keeping us safe from terrorists these many years. The way the facts have been twisted to make him look bad is disgusting.

Mac 'n Mike '08 !

Posted by: Mrs. P | July 28, 2008 7:42 PM

Bill Clinton was/is a scumbag - but on his worst day he was a better President than Dubya on his best day.

Posted by: Screaming Maniac | July 28, 2008 5:58 PM

Ronald Reagan was actually the first divorced President. And, for the record, I am not "praying for forgiveness" for having supported and voted for GWB (twice). Nor do I consider GWB "The Worst President Ever!" He was better than Bill Clinton.

Posted by: JakeD | July 28, 2008 5:53 PM

Remember:

EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANS AREN'T

ONCE A SLEAZEBAG, ALWAYS A SLEAZEBAG

ROUND HEELS ALWAYS STAY THAT WAY

Posted by: Screaming Maniac | July 28, 2008 5:52 PM

Oh boy another right wing fornicating fanatic. Some hot-blooded nymphomaniac round-heeled sweetie...just what John McSleazy needs.

(Sorta like his 2nd wife, huh?) He must like 'em like that.

Posted by: Screaming Maniac | July 28, 2008 5:49 PM

Kind of interesting to see the Christian right coalesce around Sen. McCain, who not only ditched his first wife for a younger, richer, prettier model but who also called the Christian right agents of intolerance eight years ago...

Posted by: Anonymous | July 28, 2008 5:40 PM

"hoping to hold together George W. Bush's winning coalition of 2004."

As the country disintegrates around us all, they're all praying for forgiveness for having supported The Worst President Ever!

Posted by: thebob.bob | July 28, 2008 5:26 PM

With God, all things are possible. I am really looking forward to the Saddleback Civil Forum as well.

Posted by: JakeD | July 28, 2008 4:36 PM

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