updated 8/30/2004 2:58:29 PM ET 2004-08-30T18:58:29

The drive to win over Roman Catholics is in high gear at the Republican National Convention, with daily Masses, a private briefing from the party chairman and a special hospitality suite in the convention hall.

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Catholics make up one-quarter of the electorate nationwide, and it’s even higher in key battleground states — about a third in New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Iowa. No wonder both parties are courting their vote.

President Bush split the Catholic vote in 2000 with Al Gore. Democratic Sen. John Kerry is the first Catholic nominee since John F. Kennedy, and is giving no ground. He offers himself as a practicing and believing Catholic who nonetheless holds positions contrary to the church’s teachings on abortion rights, embryonic stem cell research and the death penalty for terrorists.

“I feel it is important that faithful Catholics play as active a role as possible in the public square,” said Leonard Leo of Arlington, Va., who is a member of the Catholic Working Group, which is independent of the Republican campaigns. “The most important and nonnegotiable issues are the culture of life issues.”

For Albert Wickens, a Republican convention volunteer from Madison, N.J., Bush is the only choice for Catholics because Kerry “promotes a culture of death.”

“Kerry’s a Catholic supposedly,” Wickens said after Sunday’s Mass. “Well, he’s not a very good one.”

Faced with questions about the disconnect between his policy decisions and the church’s edicts, Kerry often casts those decisions in terms of moral imperatives rooted in faith, saying, “I’m not running to be a Catholic president. I’m running to be a president who happens to be Catholic.”

The Republican National Committee said it has enlisted more than 45,000 Catholic “team leaders” to reach out to other Catholics and collect parish directories to identify new voters. About 26 percent of the GOP delegates are Catholic, convention organizers said.

The daily Masses are planned by abortion opponents and are not official events of the convention. However, the Catholic Working Group has listed the Masses on a schedule it has distributed among conventioneers, which includes a briefing for Catholics on Thursday by RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie, who is Catholic.

At the first of the services, the Rev. George Rutler of the Church of Our Saviour — a church a mile from the convention hall at Madison Square Garden — made no mention of the candidates but said the country was engaged in “spiritual warfare” over preserving human life.

He lamented on Sunday that some wanted to “isolate (Jesus) from the national conversation” and insisted “no one has the right to take Communion,” a reference to the months-long debate over whether politicians at odds with church teaching should receive the sacrament.

Kerry’s support for abortion rights and civil unions for gay couples raises the ire of church leaders, while Bush, a Methodist, is more in line with Catholic teaching on those issues. Some GOP Catholics said Bush better represents church values and at least four U.S. bishops have said lawmakers who support abortion rights should be denied Communion.

Still, Catholics do not vote as a bloc and surveys indicate that most do not choose candidates based on their position on abortion. Republican presidential candidates have steadily increased their share of the Catholic vote since 1992. Kerry is running slightly ahead of Bush among Catholics, according to Associated Press-Ipsos polling, though other polls suggest observant Catholics are more likely to choose Bush.

Evidence of the political divisions among Catholics can be seen in competing Catholic voter guides being released this week. A group called Catholic Answers lists policies Catholics are “forbidden” to support, including abortion rights and gay marriage. The Catholic Voting Project asks voters to consider a broader range of issues including war, the death penalty and poverty. Both groups say they are independent from the church and nonpartisan.

Analysts say Catholics could go for either candidate on Nov. 2.

David Leege, an expert on Catholic voting and professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, said Bush has drawn some beyond the abortion issue by “speaking Catholic.”

The president has appealed to Catholic social justice concerns by backing funding for AIDS victims and has shown deference to Catholic beliefs even when he disagreed with them, Leege said. For example, the president met with the Vatican’s Washington ambassador to hear Pope John Paul II’s objections to the war on Iraq before it started, Leege said.

A picture of Bush and Pope John Paul II from one of the president’s visits with the pontiff hangs on the wall of the Catholic Working Group’s hospitality suite.

However, the bishops’ warnings on Communion for dissenting Catholic lawmakers may have created a backlash in favor of Kerry, political experts said. In a Pew poll released last week, about two-thirds of respondents said Catholic leaders should not use the sacrament to sanction politicians.

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