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John McCain: keeping faith, on his own terms

How the Arizona senator, once a POW 'pastor,' finds purpose in his beliefs and survival.

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McCain has also made it clear that, in the current presidential race, he would rather go down fighting for what he believes is right than to bend his positions to public opinion. Iraq, immigration, torture – all are issues he feels passionately about but that aren't necessarily going to land him in the Oval Office. After he started the race with the aura of the GOP heir apparent, his campaign imploded during the summer amid charges of mismanagement and overspending.

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Now, he says, he's back on track, and raised a respectable $6 million in the third quarter of 2007. But he smiles wanly when the view of some pundits is suggested: that he's happy to be back as the old maverick McCain, not the establishment front-runner.

"If I could convince you of that fact…." He laughs. "I think we'd all like to be the front-runner, but I'm very comfortable where I am, especially since we're seeing some traction and movement."

Indeed, in New Hampshire, where he walloped George W. Bush in the 2000 primary by 19 percentage points, McCain is once again competitive for the lead among Republican voters.

Reaching out to religious right

McCain has also managed to keep himself in the news with controversial comments. In a recent interview with Beliefnet.com, McCain said he agreed with the assertion of a majority of Americans in a recent poll that the Constitution establishes the United States as a Christian nation.

"But I say that in the broadest sense," he continued. "The lady that holds her lamp beside the golden door doesn't say, 'I only welcome Christians.' We welcome the poor, the tired, the huddled masses. But when they come here they know that they are in a nation founded on Christian principles."

The "Christian nation" comment raised some eyebrows, leading his campaign to issue a clarification: "The senator did not intend to assert that members of one religious faith or another have a greater claim to American citizenship over another. Read in context, his interview with Beliefnet makes clear that people of all faiths are entitled to all the rights protected by the Constitution, including the right to practice their religion freely."

While causing concern in some corners, the flap over "Christian nation" may have done him some good among a constituency he has courted with limited success – religious conservatives.

"Just like in 2000, he can't get it [the nomination] without getting a significant number of us," says Gary Bauer, president of the group American Values. "When he said that, he took it on the chin, but it was the kind of thing that would get our people to sort of sit up and take notice and take another look."

Still, McCain is not likely to become the darling of the religious right. He's a reliable opponent of abortion rights, though he is not vocal about it. He supports research on human embryos left over from fertility treatments, a position that puts him at odds with religious conservatives. The same is true of his opposition to an amendment to the Constitution banning gay marriage. During the 2000 campaign, McCain famously dissed top leaders of the Christian right, but this time around, he has reached out to that wing of the GOP.

Even if McCain's edgy side still gets him in hot water, it is his patriotism that best defines him for those who know him. McCain himself says that if he hadn't gone into politics after the Navy, "I probably would have tried to go into the foreign service or some other line of work that allowed me to continue to serve."

But the rough-and-tumble of politics probably suit McCain better. His friends say he has mellowed in recent years. Has he also become more spiritual? "No," says his mother, "but I'm not looking for it. I just know that what he says, he believes."

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