Although McCain sought to reassure rank-and-file Christian conservatives that he shares their values, his blunt comments heightened religious tensions in a Republican presidential race that has been riddled with appeals to religious sensibilities.
Bush and McCain have accused each other of exploiting religion for political gain in today's primaries in Virginia and Washington state, as well as in previous contests in South Carolina and Michigan.
For McCain, it was the second risky move in 24 hours. Earlier, he announced he would skip a debate with Bush and Alan Keyes scheduled for Thursday in Los Angeles. According to the respected Field Poll, McCain lags 20 points behind Bush among GOP voters in California, a crucial state on the road to the nomination.
Campaigning in Washington state yesterday, Bush accused McCain of "playing the religious card" with Catholic voters by trying to portray him as an anti-Catholic bigot. McCain has said the Texas governor has used similar tactics in Virginia by casting him as an enemy of Christian conservatives.
"This is a political game that Sen. McCain is trying to play by pitting one group of people against another," Bush said at a news conference.
Falwell and Robertson declined to respond to McCain's criticism.
Robertson's Christian Coalition issued a statement calling McCain's comments "a transparent effort to divide one American from another on the basis of religion."
Some Republicans fear that the sectarian warfare could come back to haunt their party in November.
"I don't think the Republican Party can win the White House unless it can unite Catholics and evangelical voters, and the events of recent weeks have made that difficult," former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, who has endorsed McCain, said in an interview. "If the battle for the nomination continues to get more and more bitter, we should send Al Gore an engraved invitation to take his seat in the White House, because we'll make him the winner even before the election."
Others speculated that McCain's message was aimed at a larger audience of moderate and independent voters in states where Christian conservatives are not politically powerful. A dozen states hold Republican nominating contests next Tuesday, including California, New York, and five New England states.
While describing himself as a "pro-life, pro-family fiscal conservative," McCain defended his efforts to attract independents and Democrats. He suggested that Robertson and other conservative leaders oppose him not out of political conviction, but because of his efforts to restrict unlimited contributions to political organizations. The Christian Coalition and the National Right to Life Committee vehemently oppose McCain's proposal for limits.
"Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell on the right," McCain said.
By denouncing Robertson in Virginia Beach, where the Christian Coalition is based, McCain set up a contrast with Bush's visit to Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist South Carolina college that prohibits interracial dating and whose leaders have a history of anti-Catholic comments. McCain has criticized Bush for ignoring the school's controversial views.
Bush has said he does not support the school's "anti-Catholic and racially divisive views" and regrets not speaking out against the school's policies during his campus visit Feb. 2.
Whatever McCain's motivations, political experts said his decision to take on prominent Christian conservatives could hurt the Republican nominee, whether it's Bush or him.
If McCain wins the nomination, his comments could make it more difficult for him to rally Christian conservatives, who traditionally account for more than 30 percent of the Republican vote. If Bush is the nominee, McCain's effort to cast him as a tool of the religious right could make it harder for Bush to attract moderates and independents.
"Both of those scenarios are scenarios for losing in November," said Douglas Koopman, director of the Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. "It's a risky strategy."
McCain aides confirmed that the campaign was calling Catholics in Washington state to remind them about Bush's visit to Bob Jones University.
Hoping to limit the damage, Bush sent a letter to New York Cardinal John O'Connor in which he apologized for his failure to denounce anti-Catholic prejudice.
His expression of regret did not satisfy McCain. "He should be forced to address it everywhere he campaigns," McCain spokesman Dan McLagan said.
McLagan said Bush's allies used similar tactics to damage McCain's standing with Christian conservatives in Virginia. Robertson has acknowledged making a recorded message aimed at Christian voters in South Carolina and Michigan. In it he notes that McCain's campaign cochairman, former Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, referred to some Christian conservatives as "anti-abortion zealots" and "homophobes" in a book he wrote.
Bush said he played no role in the phone calls in either state.
Also yesterday, the cochairman of McCain's campaign in South Carolina resigned, saying he wanted no part of the attacks over Bob Jones University. "They're growing into a national media vendetta that I cannot associate my name to," State House Speaker Pro Tem Terry Haskins, a Bob Jones alumnus, said yesterday, calling the attacks vicious and unjustified.
And in a related development, Bob Jones University defended the school's controversial views in a statement on its Web site.
"Isn't it really a compliment to Bob Jones University that the likes of John McCain, Al Gore, and Bill Bradley seethe and fulminate against us?" the school's statement says, calling those presidential candidates the "three tenors."
Regarding Catholics, it says evangelical Christians have an obligation to share their views with adherents of other denominations.
"Our shame would be in telling people a lie, and thereby letting them go to hell without Christ because we loved their goodwill more than we loved them and their souls," it says. "If there are those who wish to charge us with being anti-Catholicism, we plead guilty. But we are not Catholic haters."
Bush and McCain also sparred yesterday over the crumbling plans for a debate in Los Angeles. Bush and his aides suggested that McCain wanted to avoid the encounter because recent polls show him well behind Bush in California.
McCain's advisers said he decided to campaign in New York on Thursday when Bush was slow to respond to the debate invitation.
"We held our schedule open as long as we could, and then changed our plans to go to New York," McLagan said. "We can't keep waiting around for the Bush people."
This article includes information from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.