by Sam Stein

Speaking publicly for one of the first times since the end of the presidential campaign, John McCain's campaign manager Steve Schmidt painted a dire portrait of the state of the Republican Party, arguing that the GOP has largely been co-opted by its religious elements.

"If you put public policy issues to a religious test, you risk becoming a religious party," Schmidt declared. "And in a free country, a political party cannot be viable in the long term if it is seen as a sectarian party."

The remarks came in a passionate, roughly 20-minute speech before the Log Cabin Republican's national convention, in which Schmidt laid out the case for a far more open party -- one which did not consider gay marriage to be a "litmus test" issue. And while he made it a purpose not to offend social conservatives -- they "remain an indispensable part of the Republican coalition," he said -- Schmidt did not hide his concerns that religion had become the predominant thread of the GOP.

"If you reject [gay marriage] on religious grounds, I respect that," he said. "I respect anyone's religious views. However, religious views should not inform the public policy positions of a political party because... when it is a religious party, many people who would otherwise be members of that party are excluded from it because of a religious belief system that may be different. And the Republican Party ought not to be that. It ought to be a coalition of people under a big tent."...........

...........Indeed, the shrinking of the GOP tent, he prophesied, was due not to one individual actor but from a quasi-religious political brand that was "off-putting to many people." That held true whether in the case of Terry Schaivo, which Schmidt called "disastrous for the Republican Party," or gay marriage.

"If a party is seen as anti-gay than that is injurious to its candidates in states like California, Oregon or Washington or New Jersey or New York, increasingly even in states like Virginia and the mid-south," he said. "And to be a national party we need to be competitive in the northeast, for instance. I will argue that our party was a richer party when we had people, by no means conservatives but republicans, like Christie Whitman and George Pataki and all the members of Congress who have since gone extinct."

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