WASHINGTON (AP) _ After first standing by him, conservative activist Gary Bauer urged John McCain on Wednesday to retract and apologize for bitingly critical statements about religious leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

``I am not backing away from the speech,'' McCain said.

``I must in the strongest possible terms repudiate Senator McCain's unwarranted, ill-advised and divisive attacks on certain religious leaders,'' Bauer said in a statement. ``Senator McCain must not allow his personal differences with any individual to cloud his judgment.''

Bauer, a leader among social conservatives, endorsed McCain last month after dropping out of the Republican presidential race himself. He was with McCain Monday when the Arizona senator criticized the two men onstage, and he said afterward, ``If this were an attack on Christian conservative voters, I wouldn't be here.''

On Wednesday, he criticized McCain's comparison of Robertson and Falwell with the Rev. Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan. ``Such rhetoric serves only to divide the party and place into the hands of the liberal elite material to falsely depict Christian conservatives as intolerant extremists,'' Bauer said.

He also criticized McCain's later statement, on his campaign bus, that he was trying to battle ``the forces of evil,'' and was hampered by the influence of Robertson and Falwell on the Republican Party.

Concerning that, McCain said Wednesday, ``It was a lighthearted attempt at humor. I did not say or mean to say they are evil.''

Presidential rival George W. Bush chimed in, too.

He said he agreed with Bauer that McCain's comparison of the two men with Farrakhan was inappropriate, ``but that's the kind of campaign he's chosen to run.''