Bush, Kerry, and a Battle for Catholics ; as Bush Meets with Pope, the Once-Democratic Bloc Is Fluid, despite Kerry's Catholicism

Article excerpt

When George W. Bush meets with the Pope Friday at the Vatican, the third such visit of this president's term, it will be tempting to see a non-Catholic president reaching out to Roman Catholic voters as he runs for reelection.

Catholics represent nearly 23 percent of American voters; both major presidential campaigns are ramping up their efforts to woo Catholics, along with other faith groups. And with Democratic Sen. John Kerry poised to become the first Catholic major-party nominee since John F. Kennedy, the nexus of politics and Catholicism is under the microscope to a degree unprecedented in more than 40 years.

But a profound shift in voter behavior since the 1960 election has rendered the old analysis meaningless. "There is no real Catholic vote to speak of," says John Kenneth White, a political scientist at Catholic University. "The real split in American politics today is between those [of all faiths] who attend services frequently and those who go seldom or not at all."

In 1960, when Kennedy was elected, the divide between Catholics and white Protestants was real. Three-fourths of Catholics supported Kennedy and three-fourths of white Protestants backed the Republican nominee, Richard Nixon.

Today, non-Latino voters who identify themselves as Catholics - without regard to frequency of church attendance - break down along political lines that tend to mirror the electorate as a whole. When Latino Catholics are factored in, the "Catholic vote" leans Democratic in general and toward Kerry for president.

Even the stickiest of issues that go to the center of the intersection of religion and politics show Catholic views virtually identical to overall opinion. On abortion, 34 percent of Catholic voters and 36 percent of all voters believe it should be "generally available to those who want it," according to a new CBS News poll. On the issue of whether it's "appropriate for political candidates to talk about their religious beliefs as part of their political campaigns," 49 percent of Catholic voters said it was, versus 50 percent of voters overall.

Bush's task and newest move

For Bush, the task of reaching "his" Catholic voters is easier; Bush Catholics gather regularly in one place, either for mass or other church functions. Kerry's Catholics are less likely to gather regularly.

From day one, the Bush White House has reached out to conservative religious leaders as a core activity of its time in office. Now that it's battling hard for a second term, the Bush team is reaching out to religious voters so aggressively that congregations could face challenges to their tax-exempt status.

On Tuesday, an e-mail from a Bush-Cheney campaign official in Pennsylvania provided to reporters by Bush opponents demonstrated this level of outreach. …

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