President Bush was so eager for a meeting with Pope John Paul II that he recently flew overnight to Rome to cram in a visit before the pontiff--who said he couldn't rearrange his schedule--left town the next day. While there, Bush was greeted by angry anti-war protesters and had his knuckles rapped by the pope over the war in Iraq.

Why would Bush subject himself to this? Answer: Bush badly needs Catholic votes.

"Catholics are the key," says Deal Hudson, editor of Crisis magazine and a Bush campaign adviser. "If we lose any of the Catholic vote we'll lose the election." And to an unprecedented degree, the White House and a network of conservative Catholics have been working hard to get several million American Catholics to vote Republican.

There are 64 million Catholics in the United States. During the 2000 election, Bush received 47% of the Catholic vote to Gore's 49%. In 2004, the Republican strategy is to sway Catholic centrists while increasing turnout among "traditionalist" Catholics who attend Mass regularly.

According to a recent poll of 3,500 voters conducted at the University of Akron by John Green, Bush now has the edge, 49% to 40%, among Catholics who are regular--once a week or more--church-goers, while Kerry leads among less regular Mass-attending Catholics, 58% to 35%. Among all voters, Bush is ahead of Kerry, 44% to 43%.

Green then sliced the Catholic vote into groups of "traditionalists," "centrists," and "modernists." These groupings refer to Catholic beliefs, but not necessarily behavior; in other words, some modernists may be regular church-goers while some traditionalists may stay home from Mass. Bush is winning among traditionalists (60% to 30%), and Kerry is winning among the modernists (61% to 33%). But, signicantly, Kerry is also slightly ahead (45% to 41%) among the centrists.

How are Republicans trying to get Catholic votes?

First, they've organized. The White House meets weekly with Catholic conservatives, including Hudson and Frank Pavone, the head of Priests for Life. "The effort during this administration is ongoing," says Hudson. "Catholic leaders have been able to tell this administration what its concerns are, and the administration has been able to tell Catholics what they want to do, what they plan on doing, what their rationale for their policy is." Beyond abortion, says Hudson, they've discussed stem cell research, gay marriage, judicial nominations, and the faith-based initiative (which Hudson described as a "very, very big issue.")

In the spring of 2001, just after the inauguration, the GOP began organizing conservative Catholics to build a nationwide network of grassroots "team leaders" who then introduced Mass-attending Catholics to the Republican Party. The GOP and Bush-Cheney '04 each also have Catholic outreach operations. In the last four years, they've used mailings culled from parish registries, literature tables set up outside church sanctuaries, websites, and email lists to distribute information and encourage interest in the Republican Party's pro-life stance.

But the political alliance goes beyond abortion. In the summer of 2001, Crisis published an article discussing how the Republican Party would try to woo Catholics in the 2004 election, using issues other than abortion. "If the Republican Party is to attract more Catholics, it will have to do two things: convince them that it's serious about the rights of the unborn and show them that the GOP is better for ordinary folks than the Democratic Party," wrote John Rossomondo. "The president believes that the way to attract Catholics into the GOP is by focusing on issues such as education, taxes, Social Security, and Medicare, in addition to abortion. For example, Democrats have long stood for higher taxes to support social programs. Bush believes that the burden of heavy taxation ultimately harms working Americans, preventing families from purchasing many of life's necessities."

Last week, Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, met with about 100 local Catholic activists in Boston to build support for Bush. "The fact is, President Bush's policy positions are more in sync with where most Catholics are," Gillespie told the Boston Herald.

Hudson, a former Baptist minister who converted to Catholicism, says Republicans must use language that resonates with Catholics. "The issue is not just pro-life, it's `culture of life' issues, social renewal issues," he says. "Strengthening of marriage, strengthening of education, the faith-based initiative that helps get social services more connected to government funding, and patriotism--because Catholics are very much behind their military."