WASHINGTON--When a Democratic strategist pointed out that George W. Bush's presidential campaign bills itself as having the only platform that is "explicitly drawn from Catholic social justice teaching," a collective groan rose from an audience of Catholic social activists gathered here this week. This is a governor, after all, who has presided over more than 100 executions since taking office in 1995. Yet again, it seemed, a non-Catholic was billing himself as a Catholic voter's dream candidate while the actual Catholics rolled their eyes and let out a long, frustrated sigh. After the controversy surrounding Bush's visit to Bob Jones University, and the simmering anger over House Republicans denying the chaplain's post to a Catholic priest, Catholics have become the most-sought-after commodity in presidential politics. Not since John F. Kennedy's 1960 race for the White House has the Catholic identity taken such center stage in a presidential race. But with 43 million Catholic votes up for grabs and Catholics making up at least a third of all voters in the big primary states, it's not hard to see why candidates court them so heavily. They are, as one Catholic magazine labeled them, "the Holy Grail of coalition politics." But despite their large size and the disproportionate attention they have received in recent weeks, political and church observers say unless Catholics 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's fragmented, it's all over the place," said Ray Flynn, the conservative former Boston mayor and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican who now heads the Catholic Alliance, a grassroots Catholic voter movement. "As long as it remains that way, one party will ignore it and the other party will take it for granted." According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, Catholics make up 29 percent of California Republican voters and a whopping 52 percent of New York Republican voters. Those two states could decide the Republican nomination on Super Tuesday (March 7). In the general elections, Catholic voters have sided with the winning candidate in every election since 1972, giving Bill Clinton 54 percent of their votes in 1996, compared to only 37 percent for Bob Dole. "It is 'the' swing vote, and it's the swing vote in the states that will decide this presidential election," said Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman and now a strategist for John McCain's presidential bid. But despite appearances of being monolithic, Catholic voters are as diverse as they are numerous. Northern Catholics tend to be heavily Democratic, while Southern Catholics tend to vote Republican. Then there are Catholic sub-groups, such as Florida Cubans, who largely vote Republican, and Puerto Ricans, which usually vote Democratic. Further complicating the voting patterns is the fact that neither of
the two parties completely embodies Catholic social teachings. Democrats offer a home to Catholics on issues like the opposition to the death penalty and aid to the poor, while Republicans court Catholics on issues like opposition to legal abortion and support for school vouchers. "Sometimes," the nation's Catholic bishops lamented in a statement last year, "it seems few candidates and no party fully reflect our values." That's why the critical mass of independent Catholics hold such attraction to those seeking the White House for either party. A full third of all Catholics -- 36 percent -- are independents, according to a massive study of Catholic voters by the independent, conservative-oriented Crisis magazine. Recent polls suggest just how important Catholic voters could be to the Bush, McCain and Gore campaigns. A recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll showed Bush and McCain both taking equal shares of Catholic primary voters, about 46 percent each. And in the general election, a poll by the California-based Barna Research Group found Bush drawing 43 percent of Catholic voters, compared to 42 percent for Al Gore. "It's all up in the air," said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. "It's hard to tell where it will go." The focus on the Catholic vote began a month ago when Bush kicked off his South Carolina campaign at Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist school that has called the pope an agent of the
anti-Christ and bans interracial dating. When Bush stayed silent on the school's views, McCain jumped on the issue and called Michigan Catholic voters before that state's primary, telling voters Bush's visit was a tacit endorsement of the school's theology. After three weeks of critical press, Bush later apologized to New York's Cardinal John O'Connor for not speaking out, calling it a "missed opportunity causing needless offense, which I deeply regret." While it's unclear how long Bob Jones will continue to haunt Bush's campaign, political observers say if Republicans want to rely on Catholics in November, they need to be wary of appearing anti-Catholic. "Republicans have certainly shown a high degree of tolerance for anti-Catholic bias," said Paul Begala, a former Clinton adviser and political strategist, who spoke to the gathering of Catholic social activists. "They seem awfully comfortable in the presence of bigots, and I find that troubling." Key to a Republican victory in November will be keeping those critical Catholic swing votes in the GOP camp. Some, however, say Catholics will be vying with evangelical Protestants for the party's attention this year, highlighting a longstanding mutual suspicion of the two large, important voting blocks. Weber said his party needs to woo Catholics just as heavily as they have wooed evangelicals, which provide the core of Republican support. Republicans, he said, need to once again court those Reagan Democrats
who fueled the GOP majority of the 1980s. "We have not done that very well in the past, and we have to do that better this time," Weber said. So how can Catholics be sure they are not taken for granted, and that their concerns are heard? Without a central political voice, it seems that may be up to the Catholic voters themselves. Flynn, who is desperately trying to mold U.S. Catholics into a cohesive voting bloc, said he has trouble raising money from voters who are "good Republicans or good Democrats" rather than "good Catholics." With no "Irish Catholics Need Not Apply" signs keeping Catholics out of the mainstream, Flynn said Catholics have become too comfortable in middle America and have failed to develop a political voice for themselves, independent of the church. "When you're not hungry, you're not going to get out there and fight," Flynn said. "The Catholic vote is pretty satisfied. They've lost their drive for what's important and their values and beliefs. They've already made it." Regardless of whether Catholics vote with their pocket books or their prayer books, there is a growing sense Catholics want the attention given to black voters, or Jewish voters or any other influential 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 want to know if we're going to get lip service or social service."

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