Washington, May 21-- President Bush's commencement speech Sunday at the University of Notre Dame was the latest step in a carefully scripted plan by the White House and the Republican Party to woo Catholic voters.

Bush, an Episcopalian-turned-Methodist, has gone out of his way to show a friendly face to Roman Catholics and other people of faith. One of his first acts as president was to create the Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, to help religious charities compete for $8 billion in government funds.

Since then, Bush has focused on Catholics in several ways:

  • In January, he invited leaders from Catholic Charities to the White House to tell them he was supporting tax deductions for charitable contributions made by taxpayers who do not itemize. The proposal is before Congress.

  • On St. Patrick's Day, he met with Irish government leaders and extolled the virtues of Irish-Americans, most of whom are Catholic.

  • A few days later, the president hosted Catholic bishops and cardinals at the White House, where he praised Catholic education and thanked the prelates for teaching "love and compassion and hope."

  • In April, he dedicated the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington with a speech that touched on such Catholic precepts as comforting the sick and defending "in love the innocent child waiting to be born."

    Matt Schlapp of the White House political office called Catholics "one of the most important" groups of swing voters in the country.

    Once a solid Democratic bloc, Catholics, who make up about one-third of the electorate, have indeed emerged as swing voters. They sided with the winner in five of the past six presidential elections: three times with Republicans Ronald Reagan and George Bush and twice with Democrat Bill Clinton.

    In 2000, Democrat Al Gore took the Catholic vote, 50%-46%. But considering that GOP candidate Bob Dole got only 37% of Catholics in 1996, Bush made major gains.

    Among Catholics who attend church regularly, Bush won 55% of them, according to exit polls -- a factor GOP strategists say helped him win the closest election in U.S. history. They say he won over Catholics by standing up for traditional moral values and with a firm position against abortion.

    "The more Catholic voters get to know what Republicans stand for, the more they like us," says Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Gilmore, the governor of Virginia.

    There are also issues that hurt Bush with Catholics, however.

    As a candidate last year, Bush made a campaign stop at Bob Jones University, a South Carolina school whose leader called the Roman Catholic Church a "satanic cult." And the Catholic Church is opposed to the death penalty, which Bush favors, as do many Catholics.

    Analysts agree Bush cannot take Catholic votes for granted. To win re-election in 2004, they say, Bush must continue to court active Catholics not only with policies that appeal to them, but also through symbols and rhetoric that suggest he is a president who respects their beliefs and is sensitive to their traditions.

    An important aspect of the Catholic vote is that it is increasingly made up of Hispanics, who voted 2-1 for Gore. Last month, the Republican National Committee held a Catholic Leadership Forum in Washington to organize activists to carry the Republican message to Catholic voters, and Hispanics were targeted especially.

    Democrats are watching, but they say Bush is making a mistake assuming all Catholics respond to the same appeal. Many Catholics, they say, support abortion rights and aren't impressed when Bush sidles up to bishops and cardinals whom they see as inflexible purveyors of church dogma.

    "Catholics share views on issues that other voters do. They care about rising gas prices and environmental protection. And they care about maintaining the safety net of Social Security and health care. Bush is emphasizing symbol over substance, and it won't work," Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Jenny Backus says.

    Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who is Catholic, says Republicans must appeal to Catholics on two levels: to active Catholics with a moral message and to Hispanic, black and inactive Catholics with a message of social justice that includes the poor and needy.

    "If we remain the white Protestant party, we lose," he says.

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