President Bush (search) struck conservative themes Tuesday in a speech to thousands of Catholics in a hard-to-pass-up engagement days after Democrats nominated a Catholic to challenge him in the fall.

Bush split the Catholic vote with Democrat Al Gore (search) in 2000 and has been steadily courting Catholic voters, who represent about a quarter of the electorate. About 2,500 Catholics attended the 122nd convention of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic men's fraternal service organization that Bush noted was "born" in New Haven, Conn.

"Come to think of it, so was I," he said.

Bush also noted that brother Jeb, Florida's governor, is among the group's 1.7 million members, and he reminisced about a visit with Pope John Paul II (search) this past June.

"Being in his presence is an awesome experience," Bush said of the pontiff, praising him for affirming "the dignity of every person, rich and poor, able and disabled, born and unborn."

He did not mention the Iraq war, a topic that he and the Pope disagree on.

Bush also didn't mention his opponent by name. John Kerry (search) is the first Catholic atop a major party's presidential ticket since John F. Kennedy ran in 1960. Bush is Methodist.

Kerry has upset some in the church hierarchy by supporting abortion rights, and some church officials have said he and other such Catholic politicians should be denied Communion as a result.

Last month, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (search) adopted a statement warning lawmakers who are at odds with church teachings that they were "cooperating in evil."

Kerry spokesman Phil Singer said the campaign has numerous grass-roots supporters nationwide who are Catholic Democrats, and is actively reaching out to Catholic clergy.

"John Kerry is going to get the Catholic vote the old-fashioned way: He's going to earn it," Singer said. "Unlike George Bush who has failed to articulate how he is going to carve out a brighter future for America's families, John Kerry has laid out a comprehensive plan for making America stronger at home and more respected in the world."

The issue with Kerry and the bishops resonates most among Catholics who staunchly oppose abortion, said Stephen Schneck, who teaches politics at The Catholic University of America.

"It worked to solidify Bush's existing support among those voters," Schneck said. "It likely did not draw support from those Catholics supporting Kerry, but instead narrowed the number of `swingable' Catholics."

In his speech, Bush rattled off a litany of issues that struck chords of approval from the Catholic crowd.

Bush noted that he signed a bill banning a form of late-term abortion that critics call "partial-birth." Abortion rights advocates are challenging the law in court.

"This law is constitutional," Bush told the cheering crowd. "This law is compassionate. This law is urgently needed and my administration will vigorously defend it in the courts."

Bush also talked of legislation he signed granting new protections for the unborn by making it a separate federal crime to harm a fetus during an assault on the mother.

The president also repeated his call to let religious groups compete for government money as long as their social services are available to anyone in need. The White House announced $188 million in federal grants for faith-based and community groups helping the homeless, the unemployed, substance abusers and the children of parents in prison.

"The state should never fear the good works of the church," Bush said.

Before the speech, Bush raised $1.6 million for the Republican Party at the Dallas home of Larry Lacerte, founder of a software company.