DES MOINES, Iowa – Republican Sen. John McCain is courting conservative activists, crucial to any White House hopes, in an early test of his political strength.
He has his work cut out for him in Iowa.
"I don't want to say it's an insurmountable hurdle, but it's a big, big hill to climb," said Steve Scheffler, who heads the Iowa Christian Alliance, formerly the Christian Coalition. "There's no support for McCain in this constituency, and I don't see how you can make a scenario where you can bypass us."
The Arizona senator, who skipped Iowa's leadoff caucuses in his unsuccessful bid for the GOP nomination in 2000, planned a hectic itinerary through the state Thursday, raising money for local politicians and wooing conservatives in private meetings.
Cast as the Republican front-runner in a nascent presidential campaign, McCain has reached out to the conservatives he alienated in 2000, even seeking to make amends with evangelist Jerry Falwell, whom he once labeled intolerant.
"I don't think you can win with just this constituency, but no Republican can win without the support of that constituency," Scheffler said.
Just as important as these events are McCain's private sessions. The senator asked to meet with Iowans for Tax Relief, a 58,000-member group that runs the state's largest political action committee. Ed Failor, one of the group's leaders, said they plan to question McCain about taxes.
In February, McCain voted to extend President Bush's tax cuts on dividends and capital gains, which he once had opposed. He said ending the tax cuts would be tantamount to raising taxes.
Also meeting privately with McCain is Marlys Popma, a veteran activist with close ties to the evangelical Christian community.
"Conservatives don't know him at all," Popma said. "Right now the ball is in McCain's court."
Conservatives were unhappy with McCain's role in brokering a Senate deal last year that averted a showdown over Bush's judicial nominations and the Senate's own rules on filibusters.
"I know a lot of conservatives who were very upset with that because they wanted a showdown, they wanted the filibuster rule on presidential opponents abolished," said Chuck Hurley, who heads the Iowa Family Policy Center.
Popma agreed, arguing that ending the Democrats' ability to filibuster judicial nominations could have cleared the way for more conservative judges who might overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
Scheffler and others also cited McCain's push for the 2002 campaign finance law that imposes limits on campaign spending by interest groups.
"His involvement in that has caused huge problems for us," Scheffler said.
"It muzzles groups like ours," Hurley said.
Other conservatives expressed reservations about McCain's work with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., to produce compromise legislation that would create a path for undocumented immigrant workers to earn citizenship.
McCain also has been on the other side of Iowa proponents of ethanol, the fuel derived from crops such as corn.
Hurley hasn't forgotten McCain's clash with religious conservatives during the 2000 campaign, when he labeled some "evil."
"I don't think Christian leaders who urge people to vote biblically, I don't think that's an evil influence," Hurley said. "To me that statement by McCain is an extreme slap in the face to my faith."
McCain has made some progress in Iowa. He picked up the endorsement of state Sen. Chuck Larson, a former head of the Iowa Republican Party. Larson, who was deployed in Iraq for a year as an Army reservist, was impressed with McCain's Vietnam record.
"It was important, but more important was his leadership in the United States Senate," said Larson, who will be at McCain's side Thursday.
Although early, the 2008 campaign differs from the 2000 election, and so does McCain.
In 2000, he was a maverick running against then-Gov. George W. Bush, who was favored by the Republican establishment. McCain skipped Iowa and rattled around in a bus dubbed "the Straight Talk Express." After some early successes, a drubbing in South Carolina forced him from the race.
This year, McCain has moved deliberately, carefully building ties to the GOP establishment and recruiting top fundraisers and strategists from Bush's camp. His swing through Iowa was a signal that he'll probably compete in what is shaping up as a crowded caucus campaign.
Many are willing to listen.
"They haven't seen him and conservatives are used to being courted," Popma said.
Hurley raised the possibility of welcoming McCain.
"Forgiveness is biblical, too," Hurley said. "I'm all for forgiving him if he says he did wrong."