WASHINGTON--When a Democratic strategist pointed out that GeorgeW. Bush's presidential campaign bills itself as having the only platformthat is "explicitly drawn from Catholic social justice teaching," acollective groan rose from an audience of Catholic social activistsgathered here this week.This is a governor, after all, who has presided over more than 100executions since taking office in 1995. Yet again, it seemed, anon-Catholic was billing himself as a Catholic voter's dream candidatewhile the actual Catholics rolled their eyes and let out a long,frustrated sigh.After the controversy surrounding Bush's visit to Bob JonesUniversity, and the simmering anger over House Republicans denying thechaplain's post to a Catholic priest, Catholics have become themost-sought-after commodity in presidential politics.Not since John F. Kennedy's 1960 race for the White House has theCatholic identity taken such center stage in a presidential race. Butwith 43 million Catholic votes up for grabs and Catholics making up atleast a third of all voters in the big primary states, it's not hard tosee why candidates court them so heavily.They are, as one Catholic magazine labeled them, "the Holy Grail ofcoalition politics."But despite their large size and the disproportionate attention theyhave received in recent weeks, political and church observers say unlessCatholics find a common rallying cry, they will be "taken for granted"and their votes again divided between opposing agendas."It's the largest voting bloc in America and it's divided, it'sfragmented, it's all over the place," said Ray Flynn, the conservativeformer Boston mayor and U.
S. ambassador to the Vatican who now heads theCatholic Alliance, a grassroots Catholic voter movement. "As long as itremains that way, one party will ignore it and the other party will takeit for granted."According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, Catholicsmake up 29 percent of California Republican voters and a whopping 52percent of New York Republican voters. Those two states could decide theRepublican nomination on Super Tuesday (March 7).In the general elections, Catholic voters have sided with thewinning candidate in every election since 1972, giving Bill Clinton 54percent of their votes in 1996, compared to only 37 percent for BobDole."It is 'the' swing vote, and it's the swing vote in the states thatwill decide this presidential election," said Vin Weber, a formerMinnesota congressman and now a strategist for John McCain'spresidential bid.But despite appearances of being monolithic, Catholic voters are asdiverse as they are numerous. Northern Catholics tend to be heavilyDemocratic, while Southern Catholics tend to vote Republican. Then thereare Catholic sub-groups, such as Florida Cubans, who largely voteRepublican, and Puerto Ricans, which usually vote Democratic.Further complicating the voting patterns is the fact that neither ofthe two parties completely embodies Catholic social teachings. Democratsoffer a home to Catholics on issues like the opposition to the deathpenalty and aid to the poor, while Republicans court Catholics on issueslike opposition to legal abortion and support for school vouchers.
"Sometimes," the nation's Catholic bishops lamented in a statement lastyear, "it seems few candidates and no party fully reflect our values."That's why the critical mass of independent Catholics hold suchattraction to those seeking the White House for either party. A fullthird of all Catholics -- 36 percent -- are independents, according to amassive study of Catholic voters by the independent,conservative-oriented Crisis magazine.Recent polls suggest just how important Catholic voters could be tothe Bush, McCain and Gore campaigns. A recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup pollshowed Bush and McCain both taking equal shares of Catholic primaryvoters, about 46 percent each. And in the general election, a poll bythe California-based Barna Research Group found Bush drawing 43 percentof Catholic voters, compared to 42 percent for Al Gore."It's all up in the air," said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswomanfor the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. "It's hard to tellwhere it will go."The focus on the Catholic vote began a month ago when Bush kickedoff his South Carolina campaign at Bob Jones University, afundamentalist school that has called the pope an agent of theanti-Christ and bans interracial dating. When Bush stayed silent on theschool's views, McCain jumped on the issue and called Michigan Catholicvoters before that state's primary, telling voters Bush's visit was atacit endorsement of the school's theology.After three weeks of critical press, Bush later apologized to NewYork's Cardinal John O'Connor for not speaking out, calling it a "missedopportunity causing needless offense, which I deeply regret.
"While it's unclear how long Bob Jones will continue to haunt Bush'scampaign, political observers say if Republicans want to rely onCatholics in November, they need to be wary of appearing anti-Catholic."Republicans have certainly shown a high degree of tolerance foranti-Catholic bias," said Paul Begala, a former Clinton adviser andpolitical strategist, who spoke to the gathering of Catholic socialactivists. "They seem awfully comfortable in the presence of bigots, andI find that troubling."Key to a Republican victory in November will be keeping thosecritical Catholic swing votes in the GOP camp. Some, however, sayCatholics will be vying with evangelical Protestants for the party'sattention this year, highlighting a longstanding mutual suspicion of thetwo large, important voting blocks.Weber said his party needs to woo Catholics just as heavily as theyhave wooed evangelicals, which provide the core of Republican support.Republicans, he said, need to once again court those Reagan Democratswho fueled the GOP majority of the 1980s."We have not done that very well in the past, and we have to do thatbetter this time," Weber said.So how can Catholics be sure they are not taken for granted, andthat their concerns are heard? Without a central political voice, itseems that may be up to the Catholic voters themselves.Flynn, who is desperately trying to mold U.S. Catholics into acohesive voting bloc, said he has trouble raising money from voters whoare "good Republicans or good Democrats" rather than "good Catholics.
"With no "Irish Catholics Need Not Apply" signs keeping Catholics outof the mainstream, Flynn said Catholics have become too comfortable inmiddle America and have failed to develop a political voice forthemselves, independent of the church."When you're not hungry, you're not going to get out there andfight," Flynn said. "The Catholic vote is pretty satisfied. They've losttheir drive for what's important and their values and beliefs. They'vealready made it."Regardless of whether Catholics vote with their pocket books ortheir prayer books, there is a growing sense Catholics want theattention given to black voters, or Jewish voters or any otherinfluential group.

"Very often people think they've got us, they think they know us,but they don't," Begala said. "There are those of us Catholics who wantto know if we're going to get lip service or social service."