Deal Hudson publishes a small-circulation Catholic magazine called Crisis and volunteers as a Bush-Cheney campaign adviser on Catholic matters. This week he announced he would step down from his volunteer position, after the National Catholic Reporter, another Catholic publication, published the details of a decade-old sexual harassment case involving Hudson and an 18-year-old college student.

Somehow, this Catholic inside-baseball story has turned huge. It was carried by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Associated Press, network television, and countless blogs. It even made it onto a Chinese wire service.

So why do people care about Deal Hudson? Because Hudson, 54, is far more than a religious magazine publisher, or even a Bush campaign adviser. Hudson is the most important point man in the Administration's effort to court Catholic voters. A confidante of White House political director Karl Rove since 1998, he is part of an exclusive weekly Republican National Committee strategy meeting about outreach to Catholics.

And he's not just behind the scenes. At the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandals, Hudson took on Bill Clinton. "Those who are not willing to bear the burden of these higher standards should not seek office," he wrote. "After we have stripped away all idealism from offices that bind our culture together -- president, father, husband--what will be left for us to aspire to? Who will want to sacrifice personal desires for public responsibilities?" In May he told the Washington Post that Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry should be denounced from the pulpit "whenever and wherever he campaigns as a Catholic."

A frequent visitor to the White House, Hudson was the person on whom the Bush campaign pinned its success with Catholics.

And that success is critical, because most political observers believe the winner of the Catholic vote this year will win the election, which is a dead heat according to various national polls. Only about 5 percent of voters nationwide are now undecided, according to Zogby International. Ordinarily, about 20 percent of voters are undecided in the summer before a presidential election. And most critically, a large number of those undecideds are Catholics living in the swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, according to religion and politics expert John Green.

Hudson--a 1982 convert to Catholicism who grew up Southern Baptist in Texas--was the man who told Republican leaders how to connect to Catholic voters. William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, told the New York Times that Hudson played an almost indispensable role for the White House. "He had become the point man,'' Donohue said. "If you wanted to get something to the top inner circles of the White House from a Catholic perspective, you could contact Deal Hudson and it was delivered."

Political analyst Green told Beliefnet on Friday that "Hudson's resignation may matter in terms of the effort to get conservative Catholics to turnout and vote for Bush in large numbers." On the other hand, Green said, "the groundwork may well have been prepared sufficiently already."

Contacted for comment on Friday, Hudson declined, saying in a statement through his spokeswoman that he "deeply regrets the incident that happened while he was at Fordham University. However, he is still bound by his confidentiality agreement regarding the matter."

According to a story published Aug. 19 in the National Catholic Reporter, Hudson surrendered his tenure as a philosophy professor at Fordham in 1994, following allegations of an inappropriate sexual relationship with a freshman female student. He also paid a settlement of $30,000 to terminate a lawsuit that the student brought against him on the basis of the allegations.

Hudson wrote in the National Review Online this week that he believes the allegations are "being dug up ...for political reasons in an attempt to undermine the causes I have fought for: the defense of Church teachings on life, the priesthood, the authority of the pope, and the need for faithful Catholic participation in politics."

Donohue agreed, releasing a statement on Friday full of sarcasm and pique: "The Catholic League has a new requirement for all future employees: all candidates must show proof of being immaculately conceived, that is, they must demonstrate that they were conceived without sin..In light of the revelation that the National Catholic Reporter decided to expose a sexual harassment charge against Deal Hudson-one that was made almost a decade ago by a drunken female he met in a bar-we at the Catholic League are not prepared to take any chances."

The personal tone of the response stems mostly from the high stakes involved in the presidential election. But also stems from a feud between the two publications. Crisis is the magazine of politically conservative Catholics. National Catholic Reporter is read by liberals. The two publications are both politically wired and well-known to Catholic (and non-Catholic) movers and shakers.

NCR's explosive story had its genesis in an action taken by Hudson last spring: After learning that a low level employee at the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for African-American Catholics hosted a "Catholics for Kerry" Internet forum, Hudson wrote in his widely distributed email newsletter that the employee, Ono Ekeh, shouldn't work for the bishops' conference because Kerry is pro-choice. Ekeh was soon forced to resign.

"If you're going to play in the sandbox," Hudson told NCR last spring, "then you have to take the consequences of your public utterances and your public actions."

Reporter Joe Feuerherd said he decided to write a profile of Hudson partly as a result of Ekeh's firing, reasoning that Hudson had "successfully placed himself at the center of things both Catholic and political in the nation's capitol."

While Feuerherd researched his story during the spring, Hudson friend Bill Donohue of the Catholic League learned that the Kerry campaign had hired Mara Vanderslice as its director of religious outreach-and complained that, among other actions, she had spoke at rallies held by ACT-UP, the AIDS activism group that disrupted Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in 1989 by spitting the Eucharist on the floor. As a result, the Kerry campaign deep-sixed Vanderslice, who hasn't been heard from since June. Last month, after the Democratic National Committee hired the Rev. Brenda Bartella Peterson as its senior religion adviser, Donohue surfaced again, pointing out that Peterson had sided with atheist Michael Newdow in a Supreme Court case seeking to censor the words `under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance. Peterson immediately resigned.

Hudson believes he was "outed" by NCR because of the paper's anger at conservatives' power. NCR editor Tom Roberts responded, in a signed note that ran alongside Feuerherd's story: "All of us, as Hudson put it, have done things in our lives that we regret. But not everyone is a public figure, seeking the spotlight and rubbing elbows regularly with the most powerful in the land. Most of us don't regularly publicly denounce those whose personal behavior we think deficient; fewer still have the power to get someone fired for maintaining a political Web site because we disagree with its content; or to claim with some validity that we are responsible for getting like-minded Catholics appointed to positions of power at the highest levels of government."

Today, with days to go before the Republican National Convention and then a few short weeks before the Nov. 2 election, it's impossible to know who will win the White House. But both political parties know this: there are 64 million Catholics in the United States, or about 25% of the population. Recent polling has shown Catholics with a slight preference for John Kerry, the first Catholic candidate since 1960, over President Bush. Catholics who attend church infrequently support Kerry by a wide margin. However, among Mass-attending Catholics, Bush leads Kerry. These are the voters Hudson has helped the Bush campaign capture.

Meanwhile, combined data from Gallup's two most recent polls, conducted July 19-21 and July 30-Aug. 1, show that Catholic registered voters who attend church weekly support Bush over Kerry, 52% to 42%. They represent about one-third of all Catholic registered voters. Among Catholic registered voters who attend church nearly every week or monthly, Kerry leads Bush, 50% to 45%. This group represents about 27% of all Catholic registered voters. Among Catholic registered voters who rarely or never attend church, Kerry leads, 57% to 39%. This group represents about 38% of all U.S. Catholic registered voters.

Donohue told the New York Times that Hudson's resignation would hurt the Bush campaign's efforts with Catholic voters. "He was the ultimate networker," Donohue said. "I think it will be hurt because of the ties that Deal had."

Hudson clearly knew the stakes in the spring. "This election is nothing less than a test for the Catholic Church in the United States," Hudson told Beliefnet in a May interview.

And now, perhaps, more so.

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