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Catholic Voters Are Having a Hard Time Getting Off the Fence

Politics: Predictions about how 15 million moderates will vote are especially difficult this year. They try to reconcile church doctrine with choices.


MILWAUKEE — With eight weeks to go until election day, most religious groups have taken their traditional places on the political stage: Protestants to the Republican right, Jews to the Democratic left.

Standing center stage, however, are an estimated 15 million moderate Roman Catholics whose votes are up for grabs.

Although Catholic voters of all stripes have tended to vote Democratic, they occasionally have backed Republicans for president. But moderate Catholics have been even more movable, and experts say this year they are especially unpredictable.

Their volatility stems, in part, from the challenge of reconciling church doctrine with politics. The Vatican's opposition to abortion, for example, leads some moderates to the GOP. But the church's emphasis on aiding the unfortunate tugs others toward the Democrats.

Experts say this balancing act is tough for many Catholics and, in fact, is more complicated than these two examples suggest. Resolving such conflicts is even more difficult for moderate Catholics, they say.

"The election may hinge on this, because while there are a lot of groups that can go either way, this is one of the biggest," said John Green, a professor at the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at Ohio's University of Akron. "They're a very conflicted people."

A large Catholic population--and the close race for Wisconsin's 11 electoral votes--makes Milwaukee a good place to explore those conflicts.

About three dozen Milwaukee Catholics interviewed recently said that at this stage in the 1996 election they already had decided for whom they would vote. But this year, they still are closely examining the Democratic candidate, Vice President Al Gore, and the GOP nominee, Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Still evaluating the two, for example, is the Rev. Ralph Gross, an energetic pastor at St. Margaret Mary, one of the largest church-school campuses in Milwaukee. He delivered a sermon at a recent weekday morning Mass about remaining true to oneself in this election.

He used Gore and Bush as examples, explaining that one man began his career as a congressman who opposed abortion but then made an "extreme" change. The other man, Gross said, crusades against abortion but has overseen more executions than any other governor.

As a blond altar girl behind him swung her sneakers underneath her chair and fidgeted, Gross asked: "Again, where is the integrity?"

He doesn't have an answer.

One-third of St. Margaret Mary's congregation is under the age of 25, and in a conversation after the morning Mass, Gross said he keeps their future in mind when voting.

"I need to see where the most people are served, which one is going to do more for the common good," he said.

The common good is an overriding concern of Bruce Schoenberger, a 50-year-old teacher who dropped off his son at St. Margaret Mary.

Gore, he said, appears to be the candidate who can "pay for things down the road," meaning Gore is committed to investing in children and caring for the sick.

For Rosemarie Deisinger, who recently celebrated her 50th wedding anniversary, health care is a major issue, but she is still unsure what each candidate would do on the subject. Both Bush and Gore have spoken repeatedly about their health-care proposals, but many Milwaukee Catholics like Deisinger said the policies seem muddled.

Of less concern to her, and to many of her fellow senior citizens at St. Sebastian's Church, was what was long thought to be a hot-button issue: abortion.

"I don't believe this abortion issue is going to be the overall question," Deisinger said. "The overall question for me is, how will this candidate and his vice president do the best for all Americans, especially the needy?"

She's not alone. National surveys show that Catholics agree with the general population in supporting abortion rights in some instances. Even so, Deisinger remains undecided.

She is one of millions of moderate Catholics who, experts say, have waited an unusually long time to make up their minds about the presidential candidates.

The stakes are high. No Democrat has ever captured the White House without roping in more than half of the Catholic vote, according to Ed Sarpolus, an independent Michigan-based pollster.

Republican strategists see in these undecided voters an opportunity. The Republican National Committee has revived the Catholic Task Force that they had experimented with in 1996 to target Catholics. The task force will begin direct-mail campaigns this month, focusing on a host of social reforms that Bush is promising from the campaign trail.

The volatility of moderate Catholics has surprised experts this year, and two groups that monitor Catholic voting trends--Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate and Catholics for a Free Choice--are conducting surveys to shed light on the political thinking of this group.

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