Politics to greet pope on U.S. visit

Presidential candidates hope pontiff's remarks produce Catholic votes

April 14, 2008|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,Sun Reporter

WASHINGTON -- Pope Benedict XVI arrives in the United States this week amid a full-throttle presidential campaign, with Sens. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain seeking support from the same engaged Catholics the pontiff hopes to reach.

The pope won't directly weigh in on the presidential race during stops in Washington and New York, Vatican officials and theologians say. But his homilies and remarks will almost certainly refer to topics of intense debate here, from the Iraq war to abortion and gay marriage.

"Does he have a point of view on a number of issues before the candidates? Of course he does," said Chester L. Gillis, a Georgetown University theology professor and author of The Political Papacy: John Paul II, Benedict XVI and their Influence. "Might he want to make those clear? Of course."

In states such as Pennsylvania, Indiana and North Carolina, where the next primaries are scheduled, tens of thousands of Roman Catholics will be following coverage of his trip at the same time they are considering whom to back for president.

The political effect of Pope Benedict's visit may be determined by the issues he chooses to address, said John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The Catholic hierarchy has long opposed the Iraq war, Green said, and frequent mentions of Iraq could motivate left-leaning church members in an election year. But discussion of the church's opposition to same-sex marriage "could energize more conservative Catholics, and it could de-energize more liberal Catholics," he said.

"It's possible - if he comes and talks about the full range of issues - that the effects could cancel each other out," Green said. "It might net out to zero."

The pope has not foreshadowed his remarks at various events, from a Mass at Nationals Park on Thursday to a United Nations address Friday and a visit to Ground Zero in New York City on Sunday. Wednesday will mark just the second time a pope has visited the White House, according to the Vatican.

Greg Rohr, 42, plans to follow what Pope Benedict says closely. He'll be at the Washington ballpark, having secured tickets online for his wife and nine children. A corporate communications executive from Hagerstown, Rohr doesn't expect to hear specific political messages, but he hopes the pope's words resonate.

"Lots of times there are some far-reaching effects to what the pope says," Rohr said. "I would think that what he does say will get noted. Hopefully, there will be some good sound bites that people retain."

It's unlikely that the pope would affect Rohr's vote, however. A Republican, he backed McCain in the primary, and said that his top concern when voting is abortion. Obama and Clinton support abortion rights.

As the economy and housing woes have shot to prominence in recent months, social and moral issues that motivate religious voters have dipped in status during the current election campaign.

But that could change quickly, political analysts note. The controversy over remarks by Obama's pastor intensified discussion of religion in the presidential race, and the presidential candidates continue to make overt appeals for votes from Catholics and other religious groups.

Catholics have long been an important source of votes, making up about a quarter of the electorate, and in recent elections nearly evenly splitting their support between Democrats and Republicans.

Recognizing the importance of the Catholic vote, Clinton, Obama and McCain - all Protestants - are making direct appeals.

During a nationally televised forum on the faith of the Democratic candidates at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., last night, Clinton praised the pope as "a strong voice on behalf of what we must do to deal with poverty and deal with injustice and deal with what is truly our obligations to those who are least among us."

She also praised the "leadership" of the Vatican for becoming "the first carbon-neutral state in the world."

Obama called religion a "bulwark, a foundation when other things aren't going well," in response to questions about his recent comments that voters suffering through economic hard times "cling" to guns or religion.

"What I was referring to was in no way demeaning a faith that I myself embrace," he said.

Clinton got 63 percent of the Catholic vote in Ohio, according to an exit poll, and is hoping for a similar advantage in Pennsylvania. Nationally, a Pew Research poll conducted late last month showed that Catholics who are Democrats favored Clinton over Obama 47 percent to 38 percent. Overall, Obama had a 49 percent to 39 percent lead over Clinton in the telephone survey of 1,503 likely voters.

"What that reflects is that working-class Democrats are breaking for" Clinton, said Andrew Kohut, president of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, and that Hispanic Catholics are "stronger backers" of the New York senator.

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