WASHINGTON (AP) - The religious tumult during the primary campaign reinforced one of the dogmas of Republican Party politics: You can't get the nomination without the Evangelical Protestant activists. George W. Bush cultivated this flock; John McCain alienated it. Guess who won.

But some see a flip side. The primaries "created the perception of closer ties between Gov. Bush and the religious right than many Republicans feel comfortable with," remarks the Interfaith Alliance's C. Welton Gaddy, who opposes the evangelical activists. "It's a tricky situation for him."

Corwin Smidt, a Calvin College political scientist, agrees that Bush "doesn't want to be painted as the Christian conservative candidate." Yet Bush will be counting on this bloc in November.

Smidt is part of a team of four political scientists who have carefully tracked religious voting patterns since 1980. The others are John Green of the University of Akron, James Guth of Furman University and Lyman Kellstedt of Wheaton College in Illinois.

Rather than the vague religious identifications in typical exit polls, this team checks whether voters are actually active in their faith, and uses an unusually large sample (4,000) to categorize the specific churches where they worship.

Smidt told a National Association of Evangelicals briefing last week that whites who are active in evangelical churches, a devoutly Republican group, now make up some 25 percent of the electorate. (Black Protestants are often evangelical in style but loyally Democratic; the team treats them as a separate category.)

Evangelical Protestants are not only numerous but cohesive, Smidt said, and they have a solid consensus on issues, vote at higher levels than they used to, and are readily mobilized through churches and other associations -- all crucial for political clout.

With the shift of white southerners to the G.O.P. since 1980, said Smidt, "evangelicals serve largely as the bedrock of the Republican coalition," taking the former role of Protestants in "Mainline" denominations that have become more mixed, politically as well as theologically.

Evangelicalism is no monolith. The Bush-McCain squabbles exposed differences among Bob Jones fundamentalists, Pat Robertson activists, and National Association of Evangelicals-type moderates. However, all conservative Protestant factions appear bound to Bush.

But what about active Catholics, the second biggest religious bloc with 22 percent of voters?

Interviewed at the evangelical briefing, John Green said "there isn't a Catholic vote any more." He said Hispanic Catholics and non-Hispanic liberal Catholics tend to vote for Democrats, conservative Catholics for Republicans, and middle-of-the-road Catholics for either.

The flap over Bush's appearance at doctrinally anti-Catholic Bob Jones University cemented Gore's hold on the liberals, Green said, while conservative Catholics don't consider Bush anti-Catholic and can forgive him now that he has apologized in writing to Cardinal John O'Connor. That leaves both men fighting for Catholic swing voters.

Green predicts a close result in November, "and middle Catholics will decide the election.''

Another political scientist, A. James Reichley of Georgetown University, told the evangelical briefing that the abortion issue changed Catholic politics, though not in the way many think.

From the days of Andrew Jackson, he explained, "a good Catholic was a good Democrat." But once the abortion issue turned into a national debate, the Democratic leadership and the Catholic Church became polar opposites. For many Catholics, abortion rights aren't a critical factor in their politics, said Reichley, but they "decided that if they liked an individual Republican candidate on other issues they no longer felt that tribal hold to the Democratic Party."

With party uncoupled from church, many Catholics have been going Republican, especially those who are regular churchgoers. But now the pendulum may be swinging back again. The shift toward the Republicans has stalled and "is in danger of being reversed," says Deal Hudson, editor of Crisis, a conservative Catholic magazine which has been analyzing the trend. "The moment could not be more critical."

GOP prospects have been hurt lately, not only by Bush's Bob Jones visit but the ruckus over Republican leaders picking a Protestant over a Catholic for House chaplain.

More than one-third of Republicans are now Catholic, said Hudson, and Republican candidates "have to be as sensitive to Catholic attitudes as they have been to evangelical attitudes."

He thinks political pitches that appeal to evangelicals can turn off Catholics. "The Catholic responds to compassionate, inclusive, accepting rhetoric." However, he said, evangelicals and active Catholics agree that their leaders should "address the moral breakdown in the family and the culture."

One indication that the Bush campaign is watching the issue came last September, when Hudson was invited to Texas to brief Bush on his magazine's research into the Catholic vote.

There's another huge voting bloc identified by the four political scientists: non-religious Americans. When those who are church members in name only are added to those with no religious affiliation at all, they outnumber the evangelicals.

For Al Gore, the good news is that this bloc is as devoutly Democratic as the Evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics are Republican. The bad news is that, unlike the believers, they're a fuzzy group that's devilishly difficult to locate and mobilize.

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