PARMA, Ohio – Sen. John Kerry (search) is having trouble wooing fellow Roman Catholics in Iowa and Wisconsin. President Bush is short of his expected Catholic count in Michigan and Minnesota. Once reliably Democratic, Catholics have become one of the most complicated and coveted swing voting blocs.
Catholics make up one-quarter of the electorate nationwide — with larger percentages in a dozen battleground states, including New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Maine, Nevada, Florida, Missouri and Ohio.
Four years ago, Democrat Al Gore (search) edged Bush among Catholics, 50-47, according to exit polls. So far this year, the Republican incumbent is splitting the vote with Kerry, the first Catholic to run for president since Democrat John Kennedy (search) got 83 percent of the Catholic vote against Republican Richard Nixon in 1960.
Catholics kept voting Democratic until 1972, when they gave 61 percent of their support to Richard Nixon. They have been independent-minded ever since — narrowly backing Republican Ronald Reagan twice and giving 20 percent of their support to Ross Perot in 1992 while handing Bill Clinton about half their votes.
The Catholic vote has shifted as lifelong Democrats — many of them from blue-collar, ethnic suburbs like Parma, Ohio — began to wonder whether their party had become too liberal on social issues, if not economic policy. They were "Reagan Democrats," charter members of Nixon's "Silent Majority."
They are Catholics like Irene Sandor, 75, who stood on her tiny cement porch Tuesday in Parma while watching Kerry running mate John Edwards (search) arrive at a community center across the street. "The last Democrat I voted for was John Kennedy," she said. "Kerry, I know he's Catholic. But I also know he's a liberal."
An AP-Ipsos poll suggests that a majority of Catholics who are likely voters attend mass at least once a week, and Bush gets a majority of the churchgoers' votes. The Republican campaign is appealing to them through the mail, telephone calls and presidential events by emphasizing Bush's conservative views, particularly on abortion, that line up with the Vatican's teachings.
The Republican National Committee says it has 45,000 "team leaders" reaching out to fellow Catholics and collecting parish directories to identify new voters. An RNC Web site for Catholics plays up Kerry's differences with the Vatican on abortion and gay rights.
Catholics who don't worship regularly tend to back Kerry, according to the AP-Ipsos poll. Many of them are already targeted by Kerry's campaign because they are part of his base - union members, minorities and low-income earners.
That leaves swing-voting Catholics like Missy Kocab, 18. A product of Ohio's Catholic schools, she opposes gay marriage and abortion but is cool toward the president. "I just don't think the president has been honest about Iraq," she says.
Becky Martin, 35, of Parma, says, "I hate the war and I hate Kerry. What do I do?"
Catholic swing voters tend not to mix their religion with their politics. Thus, Bush and Kerry are appealing to them the same was they do other swing voters - pushing poll-tested issues like education and health care while trying to undercut each other's character.
When Kerry says it's time for change because Bush misled Americans about Iraq and can't be trusted on other issues, he's speaking to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The same for Bush when he says Kerry would vacillate dangerously as commander in chief.
Gore narrowly won Wisconsin while carrying the state's Catholic vote by 3 percentage points. Private and public polls suggest Bush is currently tied or winning among Catholics there.
Though the small sample sizes prohibit definitive conclusions, surveys conducted for the campaigns suggest Kerry also is lagging behind Gore's Catholic totals in Iowa and perhaps Ohio. Bush is not doing as well as he did four years ago in Minnesota, New Hampshire and Michigan
Analysts say those numbers reflect the state races overall. If a candidate is underperforming among Catholics, chances are he is down among all swing voters.
Kerry offers himself as a practicing and believing Catholic who nonetheless holds positions contrary to the church's on abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research.
Some Democrats have urged him to highlight those differences, forging a bond with equally conflicted swing voting Catholics.
In some states, Democrats simply want him to keep attending Sunday services before Nov. 2.
"If Kerry has a problem with Catholics, it's that too few Catholics know he's one of them," said Jim Jordan, his former campaign manager.