CINCINNATI — Sen. John McCain, who has struggled to win the trust of evangelical voters, met privately Thursday in Ohio with several influential social conservatives who have been critical of him -- and impressed them, while telling them only some of what they wanted to hear.
McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, told the small assembly that he was open to learning more about their opposition to embryonic stem cell research despite his past disagreements with them on the issue.
And, according to participants, he indicated that he would take seriously their requests that he choose an anti-abortion running mate and would talk more openly about his opposition to gay marriage -- a pledge he carried out later in the day by endorsing a ballot measure in California to ban gay marriage.
"It was obvious there were a lot of changed hearts in the room," said Phil Burress, who led Ohio's anti-gay-marriage ballot measure in 2004. "We realized that he's with us on the majority of the issues we care about."
McCain's campaign sought the meeting after recent comments from Burress and others that the conservative movement would not be as energized for the Arizona senator as it was for President Bush in 2004, when a GOP voter mobilization effort spurred the party's decisive victory in Ohio.
Thursday's gathering reflected an increasingly aggressive push by McCain to try to corral a party base that, for the most part, backed his rivals for the Republican nomination and have long viewed him with suspicion. McCain's outreach is part of a careful political balancing act as he also tries to appeal to independent voters and moderate Democrats who could be turned off if he closely embraces social conservatives.
The session followed a larger but less-talked-about gathering last weekend in which McCain's top two aides responsible for evangelical outreach laid out the candidate's record on key policy issues.
Many conservatives have been upset that McCain opposed a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, a position he said he took because he believes states should decide the issue. At the meeting, McCain sought to reassure conservatives by emphasizing his work on behalf of an anti-gay-marriage measure in his home state.
He referred to that in his endorsement of the California initiative, lauding efforts to "recognize marriage as a unique institution between a man and a woman, just as we did in my home state of Arizona. I do not believe judges should be making these decisions."
McCain is scheduled to fly Sunday to Asheville, N.C., to meet privately with the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham. The younger Graham met this month with McCain's rival, presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama, who has launched his own effort to court skeptical evangelical leaders.
McCain told the activists Thursday that he also hoped to meet with James C. Dobson, founder of the influential group Focus on the Family, who has said he would not vote for McCain. "The senator spoke fondly of him, but believes there's probably room for some bridge-building," said Mike Gonidakis, head of Ohio Right to Life.
Participants said McCain took detailed notes and listened intently. McCain's aides said they were satisfied with the meeting, and one called it "successful."
Lori Viars, who heads the Family First political action committee, expressed her strong desire that McCain name a "consistent conservative" to be his running mate.
Gonidakis said McCain "agreed that having a conservative running mate was important, having a pro-life running mate was important."
McCain listened as one of the country's leading opponents of using embryonic stem cells, Dr. John Willke, made the case for relying on adult cells. Some scientists have reported finding ways to manipulate human skin cells to have properties similar to embryonic stem cells.
Several participants said McCain did not offer any indication he would change his mind, but they said they were impressed that he appeared open to Willke's points.
"It appears as if he's willing to at least look at the science and decide which way he goes from there," Gonidakis said.
McCain did resist the group at one point when he was asked to showcase his family more as he campaigns. The senator responded that he was concerned about drawing attention to his son, a Marine who has served in Iraq, and did not want to put him in danger.
But even as McCain charmed the group, several participants said he was far from solving his problems in Ohio or with social conservatives more broadly.
Viars said she was "holding out" to see who McCain picks for his ticket before she decides whether to volunteer for the campaign, as she did for Bush.
Others said McCain can't win evangelicals merely by meeting with them privately; he has to embrace them publicly. "We told him that if he didn't come out and share his pro-family stances on these issues, then he can kiss Ohio goodbye," Burress said. "We can't deliver his message for him."