Jewish World Review Oct. 18, 2004 / 3 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765

Carl P. Leubsdorf

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Catholics increasingly vote their politics, not their religion | CLEVELAND — Roman Catholics still remember the campaign that elected John F. Kennedy.

"We were so proud because we were Catholic and he was Irish," recalled Rosemarie Feighan DeJohn, 58, a county human resources worker. "I voted for him because he was Catholic," said Neil Huber, 65, a retired businessman.

John Kerry, another Massachusetts Democrat, is the first Catholic nominee since Kennedy. But interviews with 30 Catholic voters in three nonscientific "focus groups" indicated his religion is playing very little role.

DeJohn, a self-styled "bedrock Democrat," favors Kerry. Huber, now "an absolute Republican," backs George W. Bush. Tom Hoskin, 61, though a Catholic Democrat, said he didn't even know Kerry is Catholic.

And all said the Catholic hierarchy should stay out of politics.

The interviews were set up to measure issues that are affecting Catholic voters, an important political swing group. Once solidly Democratic, Catholics increasingly have mirrored the overall electorate, backing Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, Bill Clinton in the 1990s and Al Gore narrowly in 2000.

This year, when Bush has led national polls, he has led among Catholics. As the overall vote has tightened, so has the Catholic vote.

The interviews showed Catholic voters were as polarized as non-Catholic voters, and that many Catholic Democrats backed Kerry though they agreed with Bush on issues like abortion.

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Take Pat Sweeney, a longtime Democratic legislator who now works part time for a former GOP colleague in Washington. He has voted in the past for both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates, opposes abortion rights and is "angered" by Democratic opposition to school vouchers for private school students.

But he backs Kerry, declaring he'd be for "Charles Manson if he were the nominee" because of his disdain for Bush's positions. "What I'm looking for is Republicans that still stand up and say: 'Where's the balanced budget? Where's the sensitivity of the campaign of being a compassionate conservative?'"

Like many of those interviewed, he will vote for GOP Sen. George Voinovich, the former mayor of Cleveland and one of a handful of Senate Republicans who opposed Bush on tax increases and other budget issues.

Harry Hewitt, 53, a corporate real estate and franchising manager and a political independent, cited similar issues in explaining his shift from Bush in 2000 to Kerry this year, even though he has "a severe problem" with Kerry's support of abortion rights.

"I do not like how they're handling the economic decisions in this country and the war," he said.

But Ann Huber, 56, a travel agency owner and a registered Republican, said she will vote for Bush in large part because of "his feelings about family and pro-life and kids." And Michelle Johnson, 43, a Kerry voter, said many of her suburban Catholic neighbors back Bush because "they're afraid that their wholesome family values are being lost."

Some of the liveliest discussion centered on "family values" and the place of abortion as part of a broader definition of "life."

"I've never heard George Bush explain what is 'family values,'" said Tom O'Malley, 67, a Democrat and one of a minority who supported abortion rights. "That's saying that only Republicans who are conservative have family values," he continued. "Because the liberal Democrats don't have family values. That's wrong."

Several participants said there was no true "pro-life candidate."

"When you're pro-life, you're against the death penalty, you're against abortion, euthanasia," said Maureen Wlodarczyk, 38, a Realtor who backs Kerry. "It's not just the abortion side."

One family showed signs of a classic generational split.

Richard French, 57, a lawyer, is a solid Republican who backs Bush. Daughter Kathryn, 22, an independent, is undecided. And older daughter Anne Thidemann, 26, also a lawyer and a Republican, said she is for Bush.

But she conceded "I'm not a big fan of either candidate" and sounded like a frail reed for Bush to rely on. She criticized him for going into Iraq without international support and said she was listening closely to the debates.

"I want to know if he's learned his lesson," she said.

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Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Comment by clicking here.



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