The front page New York Times piece on the trouble McCain is having with conservative evangelicals has this interesting tidbit:

Unlike Mr. Bush, Mr. McCain is decidedly reticent about religion on the stump. Mr. McCain grew up Episcopalian and shifted to a Baptist church after marrying his second wife, Cindy, but has not been baptized into the denomination. When asked about his personal faith at town hall forums, he often relates a familiar story. When Mr. McCain was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, a guard who had once loosened his bonds while he was being tortured sidled up to him on Christmas Day and drew a cross on the dirt in front of them. But some evangelical leaders say the account sheds more light on the guard’s faith than on Mr. McCain’s. [Italics Mine]

McCain tells this story all the time, and depending on how much enthusiasm he is showing, it can be very powerful. But, as these evangelical leaders point out, it does not have much to do with the senator's faith. In fact, it is not even clear that the story sounds any more moving if you are religious.

The other problem here is that McCain often looks awkward and uncomfortable when relating the tale--i.e. whenever he has been asked about his faith. President Bush's religious beliefs continue to be a matter of debate (Jacob Weisberg's book has some very good reporting and analysis on the matter), but at least Bush comes across as a genuine believer. It's hard to imagine that any amount of "outreach"--the subject of th NYT piece--can completely solve this problem for the McCain campaign.

--Isaac Chotiner