From NBC/NJ's Matthew E. Berger
CINCINNATI, Ohio -- McCain told conservative leaders that he would speak out more to highlight his pro-life record and views on other social issues to garner more Christian conservative support, leaders in the room said Thursday.
"He needs to find his voice a little better in Ohio," said Mike Gonidakis, executive director of Ohio Right to Life, one of several leaders who met with McCain for more than an hour. "He pledged to us we'd hear a lot more from him and that he'd be speaking his voice on these issues."
The officials said they walked away impressed with McCain's positions, and said they believed the "ship is turning" in conservative support for the Republican presidential candidate.
The group spoke about McCain's pro-life voting record, as well as his support for state amendments banning gay marriage (though he did not support a federal one). They urged him to highlight these stances, especially in events in their swing state.
The leaders said McCain also acknowledged where they disagree, specifically on embryonic stem-cell research, which McCain has supported. The candidate received literature on new research developments which they said made use of the cells from embryos unnecessary.
When McCain asked for advice on how to win more conservative support, the leaders said they told him to speak louder and longer.
"We made it very clear to him that if he doesn't start speaking on family issues, he's going to lose Ohio," said Phil Burress, president of Citizens for Community Values. "He needs to make the issues he agrees with us on very clear."
Chris Long, president of the Ohio Christian Alliance, said he stressed the importance of a pro-life running mate.
"That will go a long way to welcome conservative voters," Long said. "If it's a pro-choice candidate, there is a segment that would be disheartened."
McCain was joined in the meeting by Rob Portman, a former congressman and director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, who has been considered a potential vice presidential candidate for McCain.
Many of the Christian leaders said there was growing support for McCain in their community, but acknowledged it was not at the level President Bush received in 2000 and 2004.
"We're far from galvanized behind him," said Burress, who helped organize the effort to get a gay marriage amendment on the Ohio ballot in 2004. "He's not getting out what he stands for when it comes to conservatives. The voters in Ohio are definitely stagnant right now."
One Christian leader who was listed as attending but did not -- Harvey Hook of Gathering Columbus, a Christian business association -- said his community members feel deflated from where they were eight years ago.
"Many are feeling like this man does not initially represent himself as being strong on what we label as core conservative values," Hook said. "I believe he and his team need to take a critical look at what is their message, and develop a consistent message and a consistent theme, and do it over and over and over again. Unless he fully embodies what the message is, it will fail."
Hook said he was not sure who he would vote for, and would consider a write-in candidate. But he suggested he was a minority, since many Christian conservatives are worried about the future of the U.S. Supreme Court.
"I think most people in my community will move forward and push the button for John McCain," he said. "I don't think I'm in the majority in my community whatsoever."
Several of the leaders in the room Thursday said the differences between McCain and Obama on social issues was as "big as the Grand Canyon." But Gonidakis said opposition to Obama alone will not drive conservatives to the polls.
"The strategy of, 'Vote for me because the other guy is so bad,' it doesn't work," he said. "The candidate has to actually come out and speak on his own positions. We need a reason to coalesce around Sen. McCain, and I believe we are starting to get that."
*** UPDATE *** John McCain will meet with Franklin Graham, the son of evangelical leader Billy Graham, on Sunday, the campaign announced Thursday.
McCain will fly to Asheville, N.C. on Sunday from Louisville, Ky., where he is speaking at a fundraiser. The private meeting will be closed to press.
The younger Graham is president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.