Dallas. Aug. 3--(AP) President George W. Bush struck conservative anti-abortion themes in a speech to thousands of Catholics in a hard-to-pass-up engagement days after Democrats nominated a Catholic to challenge him in the fall.

His opponent, Democrat John Kerry, hammered at economic themes and took a veiled swipe at Vice President Dick Cheney, saying Tuesday that he won't dole out special favors to corporations if elected president: "My vice president of the United States will never meet secretly with polluters who want to rewrite the environmental laws.''

Bush split the Catholic vote with Democrat Al Gore in 2000 and has been steadily courting Catholic voters, who represent about a quarter of the electorate. About 2,500 Catholics attended the 122nd convention of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic men's fraternal service organization that Bush noted was "born'' in New Haven, Connecticut. "Come to think of it, so was I,'' he said.

Bush also noted that brother Jeb, Florida's governor, is among the group's 1.7 million members, and he reminisced about a visit with Pope John Paul II this past June. "Being in his presence is an awesome experience,'' Bush said of the pontiff, praising him for affirming "the dignity of every person, rich and poor, able and disabled, born and unborn.'' He did not mention the Iraq war, a topic that he and the Pope disagree on.

Bush also didn't mention his opponent by name. John Kerry is the first Catholic atop a major party's presidential ticket since John F. Kennedy ran in 1960. Bush is Methodist.

Kerry has upset some in the church hierarchy by supporting abortion rights, and some church officials have said he and other such Catholic politicians should be denied Communion as a result. Last month, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a statement warning lawmakers who are at odds with church teachings that they were "cooperating in evil.''

Kerry spokesman Phil Singer said the campaign has numerous grass-roots supporters nationwide who are Catholic Democrats, and is actively reaching out to Catholic clergy. "John Kerry is going to get the Catholic vote the old-fashioned way: He's going to earn it,'' Singer said. "Unlike George Bush who has failed to articulate how he is going to carve out a brighter future for America's families, John Kerry has laid out a comprehensive plan for making America stronger at home and more respected in the world.''

Kerry's barb at Cheney referred to the vice president's meetings with energy industry officials while drafting proposals for new energy laws. Democrats want more information about those meetings and have argued that Cheney, the former head of the Halliburton Co., had allowed the loosening of clean air and water rules at the behest of corporations.

Kerry spoke in Beloit, Wisconsin, about the economy and his plan to balance the budget. He wants to roll back Bush's tax cuts for families making more than $200,000 annually and rid the tax code of narrow breaks that help powerful companies who contribute to political campaigns.

Kerry also promised to cut the federal deficit in half during four years. To do that, he said, he wants the power to veto individual spending decisions made by Congress and to enforce budget caps with automatic spending cuts.

The White House last week said it expected this year's federal deficit to reach $445 billion. That's less than the White House budget office previously estimated, but it would still be a record in dollar terms.

Kerry's pro-choice stance on abortion resonates most among Catholics who staunchly oppose abortion, said Stephen Schneck, who teaches politics at The Catholic University of America. "It worked to solidify Bush's existing support among those voters,'' Schneck said. "It likely did not draw support from those Catholics supporting Kerry, but instead narrowed the number of 'swingable' Catholics.''

In his speech, Bush rattled off a litany of issues that struck chords of approval from the Catholic crowd. Bush noted that he signed a bill banning a form of late-term abortion that critics call "partial-birth.'' Abortion rights advocates are challenging the law in court.

Bush also talked of legislation he signed granting new protections for the unborn by making it a separate federal crime to harm a fetus during an assault on the mother.

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