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McCain Continues to Court Social Conservatives

Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) presidential campaign-in-waiting has inked Marlys Popma, an influential social conservative activist in Iowa.

"John McCain has a conservative record that appeals to me and will appeal to voters in Iowa after getting to know him and evaluating his record," Popma said in a press release issued by McCain's presidential exploratory committee. "He's a man of strong character and integrity who would make an excellent national leader, is ready to govern day one, and after evaluating the other potential candidates it became evident Senator McCain is the right choice."

Popma served as political director for Rep. Jim Nussle's (R) 2006 gubernatorial race, but will join the staff of McCain's exploratory effort full-time. She has also previously served as the head of Iowa Right to Life and the Republican Party of Iowa. In the 2000 presidential race, Popma was actively involved in Republican Gary Bauer's campaign.

McCain and his political team had been courting Popma for months. When McCain visited Iowa back in April he made time for a meeting with her, after which Popma reportedly declared that "conservatives don't know him at all."

McCain allies say Popma was courted by a number of potential candidates and argue that her decision to join them represents a major step forward in McCain's Iowa caucus candidacy.

Iowa is vitally important to McCain's chances at the presidential nomination in 2008. He skipped the state's caucuses in 2000, choosing instead to focus his time and money on the New Hampshire primary where he soundly defeated then Texas Gov. George W. Bush. As the frontrunner for the '08 nomination, McCain must play everywhere and so much of his time is being spent on building an Iowa organization from scratch.

Popma joins state Sen. Chuck Larson as leading Iowa operatives loyal to McCain. Iowa native Terry Nelson, who served as political director for Bush's 2004 re-election effort, is also a senior strategist for the Arizona Senator.

Popma's decision may signal a softening toward McCain among social conservatives -- some of whom McCain offended with statements he made in 2000. Among other things, McCain condemned Rev. Jerry Falwell as am "agent of intolerance." He has since spoken at Falwell's Liberty University and both men say any animosity is behind them.

McCain is not the only potential GOP candidate putting together an impressive Iowa team, however. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) unveiled a 50-person Iowa advisory committee early this year and continues to recruit talent in the state.

By Chris Cillizza  |  December 1, 2006; 5:25 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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