- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 11, 2000

When Republicans hold a Capitol Hill reception tonight welcoming new House Chaplain Daniel P. Coughlin the first Roman Catholic to hold that position they will be doing more than simply honoring a new employee.

They also will be angling for support from what is rapidly emerging as the hot swing group in the 2000 election Roman Catholics and trying to undo months of political attacks from Democrats and Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain that painted senior Republicans as "anti-Catholic."

"We hope to establish that the Republican Party is more friendly and listens to our issues," said Tom Melady, former ambassador to the Vatican and head of the Republican National Committee's new Catholic Task Force.

Republicans hope to increase their profile among the nation's 62 million Catholics this year. Catholics are a heavy presence in key swing states in the Midwest, such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois. They are also significant voting blocs in New York and California.

To reach those voters, the Republican Party will try to show that it and the Catholic Church share important policy goals, Mr. Melady said, particularly opposition to abortion and support for the traditional family.

Republicans also hope to reach out to Catholics with support of school choice and school voucher programs, which benefit the thriving Catholic school system, and efforts to repeal the "marriage penalty," a quirk in the tax law that causes many working couples to pay more than single people with the same income.

"What we are doing now is communicating issues, telling Catholics we have been on your side the whole time," RNC spokesman Chris Paulitz said.

Republicans insist they have been developing a Catholic strategy for a year or more, but they admit they have been driven by recent events.

House Democrats began furious attacks on Republican leaders late last year after House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, picked a Protestant as the new House chaplain over a Catholic candidate. Democrats were reluctant to say so explicitly, but they left the clear implication that the Protestant-dominated House leadership had succumbed to anti-Catholic prejudice.

Mr. Hastert ended the fight last month by naming neither the Protestant nor Catholic candidate. Instead, he tapped Father Coughlin, another Catholic not previously in the running.

More explicit were attacks by Mr. McCain, who openly criticized his rival Texas Gov. George W. Bush for speaking at Bob Jones University, a conservative South Carolina Protestant school that is critical of the Vatican. He used the issue to appeal to Catholics in the key Michigan primary, sponsoring "voter alert" phone calls accusing Mr. Bush of consorting with anti-Catholic bigots.

While the strategy paid off in Michigan, it appeared to backfire a week later when Catholics turned out in major states to support Mr. Bush. Mr. McCain dropped out of the race two days later.

While the controversies were not the motivation for the party to woo Catholics, Republican strategist Ralph Reed said, "they helped throw into fuller relief the need to reach out to the Catholic community, give it a greater priority."

Republicans have responded by taking a more confrontational tone with Democrats on Catholic issues. In the last month, the RNC has put out a series of press releases critical of groups aligned with Democrats that have been trying to reduce the Vatican's status at the United Nations.

The Vatican has "observer status" at the United Nations, meaning the papal representative can take part in debates and other functions but does not have a full vote in the international body. Only Switzerland has similar status.

Other major world religions, meanwhile, have little official presence at the United Nations. Critics say the Vatican should be treated like a religious institution, not a country.

"[Vice President] Al Gore and [first lady] Hillary [Rodham] Clinton have refused to comment on the leftist, radical groups trying to evict the Vatican from the U.N.," RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson said in a March 29 press release.

Spokesmen for Mr. Gore, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, and Mrs. Clinton, the only serious Democratic contender for Senate from New York, say the candidates do not support reducing Vatican influence.

"The Republican Party has very little credibility on this issue if they aren't going to repudiate Bob Jones University," Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway told Gannett News Service in March.

The Democratic Party, meanwhile, has no organized effort to appeal to Catholic voters, although it does have active efforts in ethnic communities where Catholics are plentiful, spokeswoman Jenny Backus said.

"We are a party of inclusion and tolerance … we don't target on the basis of religion," she said. "We welcome all religions."

She dismissed the Republican attacks over the U.N. issue.

"It's just funny someone trying to cloak yourself in religion and tolerance yet be saying these terribly unfair and personal things, negative things," she said.

Beyond the heated press releases, however, Republicans say they will make a genuine outreach to Catholics on issues. For the first time, the RNC has a standing committee to guide its relations with Catholics, an organization Mr. Bush is expected to strengthen as his presidential campaign develops.

"It's important for Republicans to let Roman Catholic voters know our party not only welcomes them and shares their values but that there is Catholic social teaching reflected in our policy positions," said Mr. Reed, an adviser to Mr. Bush and the former head of the Christian Coalition.

Mr. McCain's attacks notwithstanding, Mr. Bush has been making a concerted effort to include Catholics in his campaign for more than a year, said Deal Hudson, publisher of Crisis Magazine, a Catholic monthly.

"Republicans are taking their lead from the Bush campaign and are willing to move with the Bush campaign to have a real Catholic strategy," Mr. Hudson said. "Up until now, Republican leaders have paid lip service to Catholic voters."

But nonpartisan pollster John Zogby wonders whether Republicans will be successful. In theory, he said, Republicans and Catholics agree on issues such as abortion, but the American Catholic community is widely split on core issues.

Nor do Catholics have strong partisan roots, he said. Every president since 1960, liberal and conservative alike, has won with a majority of Catholic voters. That shows Catholic voters are willing to swing between parties and ideologies easily.

"There is no Catholic vote," Mr. Zogby said. "There are Catholic sensibilities but no Catholic vote per se you can't point to an issue, or a cluster of issues, and say that is where Catholics are."

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