SEN. JOHN McCAIN apparently didn't think he needed to reject and denounce Texas evangelical leader Rev. John Hagee after learning his supporter had called the Catholic Church "the great whore" and suggested that New Orleans brought Katrina's destruction upon itself for backing gay rights.

But when it was revealed that Hagee - who gave McCain a key endorsement on the eve of March's GOP Texas primary - had been caught on tape saying that God had sent Adolf Hitler to deliver the Jews to Israel, that was the last straw.

Yesterday, McCain - the Republicans' presumptive presidential nominee - officially rejected Hagee's endorsement, the latest bizarre twist in a 2008 campaign that at times has seemed less about who has the best policy and more about which side has the wackiest pastor.

"Obviously, I find these remarks and others deeply offensive and indefensible, and I repudiate them," McCain said in a written statement late yesterday. "I did not know of them before Reverend Hagee's endorsement, and I feel I must reject his endorsement as well."

The Hagee action came just before McCain rejected a second former backer, Ohio fundamentalist leader Rev. Rod Parsley. He had campaigned with McCain on the eve of that state's primary and - according to ABC News - called Islam "an anti-Christ religion" that should be destroyed. Before rejecting his endorsement last night in an interview with the Associated Press, McCain had called Parsley "a moral compass, a spiritual guide."

The growing flap over the McCain endorsements by ministers with outrageous views may undercut what Republicans once viewed as a key weapon going into the fall: Lingering public resentment of remarks made by Democratic Sen. Barack Oba-ma's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, blasting the United States, including "God damn America!"

"It hasn't hurt [McCain] yet," said Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia history professor and presidential pundit, speaking of the controversy over Hagee and Parsley. "But if the Wright issue comes back in the fall, then the Democrats are really going to latch on to these two pastors."

Sabato said the remarks by Hagee about Catholicism may hurt the most because they are the largest voting bloc involved, especially in key November swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.

However, the latest uproar also raises the question of why these surrogate-pastors have become such a big deal, in a race one might expect to be dominated by $4-a-gallon gas, the mortgage-foreclosure crisis or the Iraq war.

"The media often use religion like bread and circuses," said Diane Winston, Knight chair in media and religion at the Annenberg School of the University of Southern California. "It's easy, it has good sound bites and makes people angry, but it's not a significant issue."

Some experts believe the dueling pastor controversies may speak to broader unease that voters may feel about either the candidates or their political parties.

For Obama, the flap over the Philadelphia-born Wright, minister at Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ when Obama joined there in the 1980s, became shorthand for voters who felt they didn't really know the first-term senator.

McCain, meanwhile, went after the backing of the Christian Right to prove his conservative credentials in a hard-fought primary season, especially after losing several primaries to Arkansas' Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist pastor. But now as McCain seeks to reposition himself in the political center for the fall, those endorsements seem to be backfiring.

The Arizona senator had been urged for weeks to repudiate the Hagee endorsement, but said he would reject his words about Catholics but not the backing of the popular televangelist, who heads a San Antonio megachurch.

Then a popular Web site, the Huffington Post, reported on an audiotape of a Hagee sermon from the 1990s that had surfaced, in which Hagee said: "Then God sent a hunter. A hunter is someone with a gun, and he forces you. Hitler was a hunter. . . . How did it happen? Because God allowed it to happen. Why did it happen? Because God said, 'My top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel.' "

The controversy broke as both camps aggressively court Jewish voters. The news of McCain's Hagee rejection broke right as Obama was addressing Jewish voters at a synagogue in Boca Raton, Fla. *