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For Super Tuesday, McCain's edge is substantial

McCain leads by 19 points nationally, but Romney could benefit from anti-McCain votes.

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In Florida, the "born-again or evangelical Christian" vote in the Republican primary – 39 percent of GOP voters – was almost perfectly divided among McCain (30 percent), Romney (29 percent), and Huckabee (29 percent).

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Huckabee could do well Tuesday in a handful of Southern states, but lacking the resources to buy ads and organize, he seems a much longer shot than Romney. And if enough of his voters decide to vote against McCain by voting for Romney, that could give Romney some more delegates.

But "the only way Romney really gets a big boost is if everybody who deserts Huckabee goes to him – and I don't think that's a foregone conclusion," says James Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville, SC.

When all is said and done, he and other experts on the religious right don't anticipate large numbers of evangelical voters sitting out the fall general election if McCain is the nominee – especially if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is the Democratic nominee.

Can the right rethink McCain?

The opposition to McCain is "much stronger at the elite level and maybe among activists, and of course McCain's military background and hero status help him," says Mr. Guth, referring to McCain's years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

The Rev. Richard Land, an influential evangelical leader who heads the public policy department of the Southern Baptist Convention, has been all over the media in the past week, encouraging conservatives – including the very anti-McCain talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh – to calm down and "listen to the voters."

Conservative pundit William Kristol, writing in Monday's New York Times, suggests conservatives "owe John McCain at least a respectful hearing," and suggests that McCain's support in Congress was critical to getting President Bush's military surge off the ground in Iraq.

"No surge, failure in Iraq, a terrible setback for America – and, as it happens, no chance for a GOP victory in 2008," he writes.

Evangelical leader Gary Bauer notes that there have been conversations between the McCain campaign and various conservative leaders in the past couple of weeks, and that McCain has stepped up his signals to conservative voters, such as his promises to veto any Democratic tax increases.

"And in each primary he's won ... he has said I want to put judges on the court that will interpret the Constitution, not read things into it that are not there, which is a signal on abortion and same-sex marriage," says Mr. Bauer.

"Temper tantrums aren't going to help," he adds, referring to the conservatives who are vocally angry at the prospect of a McCain nomination. "We should all help the senator discover his inner Reagan rather than berating him."