- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 15, 2008

It’s an unusual matchup: the pontiff vs. the White House hopefuls.

Though faith questions have surfaced often during the presidential race, the nation’s attention seems more drawn to the White House than to the Vatican: 80 percent of Americans said the next president is “more important” to them than Pope Benedict XVI, according to a Fox 5/The Washington Times/Rasmussen poll released today.

Just 9 percent said the pope is the most important; 11 percent were not sure how they felt. Among Republicans, 87 percent gave the nod to the next president; among Democrats, 81 percent.

“I don’t think this is so much a statement of religiosity as it is political circumstance. What’s important to many people now is basic. Can they pay their mortgage or afford gas? What do they think about the Iraq war or health care? Those questions are associated more with the president than the pope at this time,” said Susan Behuniak, a political science professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., who also is not surprised at the uneven percentages.

“Around 25 percent of American say they are Catholics. Even if every Catholic voted for the pope, so to speak, that would leave another 75 percent to vote for the presidential candidate. So it may not be such a dramatic number,” she added.

Benedict arrives in Washington today to begin his six-day visit to the United States.

Robert McMahon, online political editor for the Council on Foreign Relations, who offered an overview yesterday of the pope’s visit, agrees, citing a Pew Research Center survey that also said one-quarter of the nation is Roman Catholic.

“They are certainly not all in lockstep with the Vatican. Add to that a supercharged presidential election year with historical candidates, and the country seen to be at a crossroads, and it makes sense that the ‘next American president’ figures more prominently in the minds of so many Americans,” Mr. McMahon said.

“Giving a choice of pope or president is an unusual question. There have been times when the pope’s score might have been higher, seeing that we are one of the most religious countries in the world. I also think there are more Catholics out there than just 9 percent,” said Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas at Austin.

The April 9-10 survey asked 1,000 adults, “Who’s more important to you: the pope or the next president of the United States?” as press coverage of the pontiff’s visit to the U.S. was beginning to pick up.

“How did people interpret this question? Americans, even Catholic Americans, are going to pay lots of attention when they see the word ‘president’ anywhere. Still, the findings might have been different with some additional wording, like adding the phrase ‘in your whole life,’ or something similar,” Mr. Buchanan said.

A survey of 1,001 American adults released April 3 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that Benedict was viewed favorably by 52 percent, though the poll noted that “the pope remains unfamiliar to a relatively large number” — three in 10 said they didn’t know enough about him to offer an opinion.

More than 1,000 Catholics were surveyed in a poll released this month by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, revealing that 82 percent were “somewhat or very” satisfied with the leadership of Benedict. Seventy-seven percent described themselves as “proud” to be Catholic, while 43 percent said that when deciding what is “morally acceptable” they look to the pope and bishops.

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