Republicans court Catholic voters

NEW YORK (AP) — The drive to win over Roman Catholics is in high gear at the Republican National Convention, with daily Masses, a private briefing from the party chairman and a special hospitality suite in the convention hall.

Catholics make up one-quarter of the electorate nationwide, and it’s even higher in key battleground states — about a third in New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Iowa. No wonder both parties are courting their vote.

President Bush split the Catholic vote in 2000 with Al Gore. Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts is the first Catholic nominee since John F. Kennedy, and is giving no ground. He offers himself as a practicing and believing Catholic who nonetheless holds positions contrary to the church’s teachings on abortion rights, embryonic stem-cell research and the death penalty for terrorists.

“I feel it is important that faithful Catholics play as active a role as possible in the public square,” said Leonard Leo of Arlington, Va., who is a member of the Catholic Working Group, which is independent of the Republican campaigns. “The most important and nonnegotiable issues are the culture of life issues.”

For Albert Wickens, a Republican convention volunteer from Madison, N.J., Mr. Bush is the only choice for Catholics because Mr. Kerry “promotes a culture of death.”

“Kerry’s a Catholic, supposedly,” Mr. Wickens said after Sunday’s Mass. “Well, he’s not a very good one.”

Faced with questions about the disconnect between his policy decisions and the church’s edicts, Mr. Kerry often casts those decisions in terms of moral imperatives rooted in faith, saying, “I’m not running to be a Catholic president. I’m running to be a president who happens to be Catholic.”

The Republican National Committee said it has enlisted more than 45,000 Catholic “team leaders” to reach out to other Catholics and collect parish directories to identify new voters. About 26 percent of the Republican delegates are Catholic, convention organizers said.

The daily Masses are planned by abortion opponents and are not official events of the convention. However, the Catholic Working Group has listed the Masses on a schedule it has distributed among conventioneers, which includes a briefing for Catholics on Thursday by RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie, who is Catholic.

At the first of the services, the Rev. George Rutler of the Church of Our Saviour — a church a mile from the convention hall at Madison Square Garden — made no mention of the candidates, but said the country was engaged in “spiritual warfare” over preserving human life.

Mr. Kerry’s support for abortion rights and civil unions for same-sex couples raises the ire of church leaders, while Mr. Bush, a Methodist, is more in line with Catholic teaching on those issues.

Still, Catholics do not vote as a bloc, and surveys indicate that most do not choose candidates based on their position on abortion. Mr. Kerry is running slightly ahead of Mr. Bush among Catholics, according to Associated Press-Ipsos polling, though other polls suggest observant Catholics are more likely to choose Mr. Bush.

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