Sarah Smith and Bryan Northup, both recent graduates of Liberty University, were surprised when the Rev. Jerry Falwell invited Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona to deliver the commencement address at their alma mater last Saturday.
After all, Senator McCain has not exactly been viewed as a friend of Christian evangelicals, especially since he tagged the Reverend Falwell - Liberty's founder and president - and a few others as "agents of intolerance" who were "corrupting influences" in American politics during the 2000 presidential campaign.
But as the 2008 race gears up, with McCain a likely competitor, it's a new day - at least for some. Falwell and McCain have patched up their relationship. And if the reaction of a sample of attendees is any guide, McCain may have done himself some good at this campus nestled in the rolling hills of Lynchburg, Va.
"He's a man of action," says Mr. Northup, an '05 graduate who works for the IRS.
Ms. Smith, who graduated in '04 and is now a law student here, appreciated McCain's focus on the Iraq war in his address - a war that he has strongly supported from the start. "I see we have common ground in our patriotism," she says. "He didn't get into religion or abortion; it was smart to avoid hot topics."
Not that McCain favors abortion rights. As a senator, he consistently votes the antiabortion-rights position, but is not a vocal advocate. He also differs in approach in his opposition to gay marriage: While Falwell and other conservative leaders favor a constitutional amendment defining marriage as man-woman, McCain takes the federalist position - leave it up to the states.
In other interviews after the commencement, it was clear that McCain remains an uncertain figure among some voters. "I only knew that he's a senator," says Aubrey Tindle, a Democrat from Los Angeles who came to watch his son graduate. "I didn't know that he was a POW or that he did a tour in 'Nam."
To others here, McCain has a strong image - but not for conservatism, even though he usually votes for President Bush's position. "He's not considered the most conservative of Republicans," says Dan Preusser, who just got a degree in athletic training from Liberty.
"I've always respected him as a politician, especially on fiscal matters," says Gary Entrekin, a police officer from Gainesville, Ga., here for a relative's graduation. "But he's not a friend of social conservatives."
Still, he adds, "the crowd was civil - more receptive to him than I expected."
The Arizona senator took the stage at Liberty's basketball arena alongside Falwell, who said "the ilk of John McCain is very scarce, very small." McCain's 27-minute address began and ended with a standing ovation and was interrupted by applause three times, including the moment when McCain called the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, "a cause worth taking up arms against."
There was laughter at McCain's self- deprecating humor over his "passion for self-expression" as a young man - recalling that "I was so much more eloquent, well-informed, and wiser than anyone else I knew." McCain did not refer directly to his clashes with religious conservative leaders during the 2000 primaries, but did note that "ours is a noisy, contentious society" and that the "passion for self-expression sometimes overwhelms our civility."
His discussion of the Iraq war, and the profound disagreements within American society that it has triggered, almost seemed to be aimed more at other campus audiences he will address this week in New York City - both Columbia College's"Class Day" on Tuesday and the graduates of The New School on Friday. At both schools, there have been protests over McCain's coming appearances. The senator will reportedly deliver the same speech that he gave at Liberty University to those schools, and to Ohio State University in June.
Speaking on the war at Liberty, McCain declared that "my patriotism and my conscience required me to support it and to engage in the debate over whether and how to fight it.
"I stand that ground because I believed, rightly or wrongly, that my country's interests and values required it," he said. Repeatedly, he defended the rights of those who disagree with him to express their views, as a reflection of the freedoms American soldiers are fighting to protect. "Americans should argue about this war," he asserted, acknowledging the toll it has taken in lives and in financial cost.
Even if McCain made some headway in explaining himself to an audience that represents a core element of the Republican electorate, it is still too soon to say how the Arizona senator might fare once the race for the GOP nomination begins in earnest. Much depends on who runs. When asked whom they would like to see run in '08, Sarah Smith and Bryan Northup did not hesitate: Sen. George Allen (R) of Virginia. "Jeb Bush would be good, too," adds Smith, referring to the president's brother. "President Bush himself said so the other day."