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The Al Smith dinner is named for the former four-term governor of New York who was the unsuccessful 1928 Democratic presidential candidate and the first Catholic to run for president. His great-grandson, Alfred W. Smith IV, is the dinner’s master of ceremonies. “I obviously didn’t know your great-grandfather,” Obama deadpanned as he addressed Smith in 2008, “but from everything that Sen. McCain has told me, the two of them had a great time before Prohibition.” McCain, then 72 and 25 years older than Obama, cracked up.

The dinner is such a part of the national political fabric that it was featured in a 2005 episode of the television drama “The West Wing.”

While the Catholic Church has differences with Obama on abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage, the Conference of Catholic Bishops has also clashed with Republicans, opposing GOP budget plans that cut programs for the poor and criticizing efforts to deny illegal immigrants tax refunds from the $1,000-per-child tax credit.