Even as Kerry is drawing closer to Bush in general, he is falling farther behind among one surprising and crucial group: white Catholics.

According to a Pew study released Monday, President Bush now leads among white Catholics 49% to 33%. That represents further growth from Pew's September 28 poll which had it at 49% to 39%.

The candidates had been roughly even until August, when Bush began to pull ahead, according to Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Religion Forum.

Significantly, Bush won the white Catholic vote by 7 percentage points (he lost the overall Catholic vote, which includes Hispanics, by 2%).

In other words, if the election were held today and reflected these polls, Bush's victory margin among white Catholics would be twice as large against Kerry--the first Catholic major party presidential nominee since 1960--than against the Baptist Al Gore.

This is extremely bad news for Kerry because white Catholics are disproportionately represented in several battleground states with large Catholic populations: Pennsylvania (30%), New Jersey (45.9%), Ohio (28%), Michigan (28%), Wisconsin (34.4), Minnesota (28.7%) and New Hampshire (38.2%).

Kerry has said he plans to give a major speech on his Catholic faith and how it shapes his values "somewhere in the course of the next month."

For Kerry to be doing this badly among Catholics, it most likely he means he's losing not only conservative Catholics but the far larger group of "convertible Catholics," which represent 8.1% of the electorate.

The new polls did not indicate what prompted the shift but in general conservative Catholics have been strong supporters of President Bush's policies on terrorism and abortion. It's less clear why Bush seems to be doing so well among centrist Catholics, who tend to be more liberal on social issues and even tend to be pro-choice on abortion.

Kerry has been far more reluctant to discuss his faith than Bush has, a tendency that aides attribute to a Northeast Catholic cultural aversion to public explications of religion. He and other speakers did speak openly about his faith during the Democratic convention (click here for more about Kerry's "religification") but has shifted back more recently to his pre-convention tendency to avoid the topic.

For more about Kerry's spiritual path.

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