The Deacon's Bench

My father was a Pennsylvania Democrat, from the coal mines of Scranton, back in the day when it meant supporting people like Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy. So it’s with no small amount of interest that I read today about how some of those same Democrats could prove decisive in the weeks to come. Both Clinton and Obama are aggressively wooing that bloc, as the Associated Press reports:

Understanding Pennsylvania’s rich Catholic tradition and responding to it is an article of faith for Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama as the April 22 primary looms in the still unsettled and intense Democratic presidential race.

It’s a way of life — and of thinking — well-known to the people of Scranton, a working-class city nestled in northeast Pennsylvania where earlier generations worked in the factories, mills and coal mines — and kneeled in prayer in Catholic church pews on Sunday morning.

On Election Day of yesteryear, large numbers of Pennsylvania Catholics evoked the name of Franklin D. Roosevelt and voted Democratic.

This year, Clinton has fared well among Catholic voters in early primary states and she holds a substantial lead over Obama among Catholic Democrats in Pennsylvania polls. Some analysts argue, however, that Catholic voters’ race, age and economic status — rather than religion — are more likely to play a greater role in determining their vote.

Pennsylvania has an estimated 3.8 million Catholics, or just over 30 percent of the state’s population, and the percentage among Democrats is estimated to be slightly higher.

Scranton is the hometown of the late Gov. Robert P. Casey, a feisty Catholic politician who stood up to the Democratic Party over abortion. Pennsylvania’s version of the so-called “Reagan Democrat” willing to buck the party on such issues are called “Casey Democrats,” and they are a critical voting bloc in Pennsylvania.

“Those so-called Casey Democrats will be looking for a broad agenda on social justice, economic justice and a recognition by the candidate, by our nominee that he or she will be someone who can talk about their faith, but more important than that, can listen to them, listen to what their concerns are and also listen to them about their faith and their point of view,” said Bob Casey Jr., Pennsylvania’s junior senator and the son of the former governor. He has not endorsed in the primary.

Obama, unwilling to concede the Catholic vote, plans small round-table meetings and “listening sessions” with Catholic voters in Pennsylvania’s urban and rural areas, as well as e-mails and phone banks targeting Catholics.

In a nod to the diverse concerns of Catholic voters, the meetings will focus on Obama’s stands on the economy, jobs and health care, said former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer, who has been reaching out to fellow Catholics on the campaign’s behalf. One goal is to gauge how issues such as race and the inflammatory remarks of Obama spiritual mentor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, are playing with Catholics, Roemer said.

“We found Catholic voters aren’t really a lot different in terms of many of their concerns than the average voter,” Roemer said.

Clinton backers Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., last week wrote a letter to Pennsylvania Catholics emphasizing her plans on health care, mortgage foreclosures and fuel costs.

Clinton spokesman Mark Nevins said Catholics connect with Clinton’s message and Pennsylvanians value her ties to Scranton, where her father was born and raised and she was christened at the Court Street Methodist Church.

In the 1960s, Catholics overwhelmingly supported John F. Kennedy, the only Catholic elected to the White House. In recent years, many have moved toward Republican candidates, drawn by the party’s opposition to abortion. In the last presidential election, some U.S. bishops were outspoken in criticizing Catholic politicians who support abortion rights in conflict with church teaching, including 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.

President Bush, a Methodist who opposes abortion rights, won 52 percent of the Catholic vote against Kerry, the practicing Catholic, in 2004.

This election, available exit polls show Clinton with a 61-35 percent edge over Obama among Catholic voters. A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed her leading Obama 70-24 percent among Pennsylvania Catholics.

Clinton is a Methodist and Obama is a member of the United Church of Christ. Both candidates support abortion rights.

Analysts wonder whether Clinton is doing well with some Catholics because they also are part of her base, including Hispanics, blue-collar voters and older women. With traditional Democrats who are Catholic, the perception is that Clinton is more of a known quantity who paid her dues in the party.

Continue on for more insight and analysis. It’s going to be an interesting few weeks. And long.