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."
Web Politics Editor
July 28, 2008; 4:23 PM ET
Categories: Cast of Characters
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