WASHINGTON — In a week when Catholics flocked into Washington to see Pope Benedict XVI, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and members of his presidential campaign reached out for their support.

Following the papal visit to the White House, the campaign hosted a Catholics for McCain event at the Metropolitan Club, as co-chairmen Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and supporter Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., met with other Catholics and discussed McCain’s candidacy.

McCain also joined attendees at the White House dinner in honor of the Holy Father’s birthday on April 16, and the National Catholic Prayer breakfast April 18 at the Washington Hilton, as Pope Benedict left for New York.

Cindy McCain spoke to the Metropolitan Club gathering about her husband’s character and emphasized the core principles of his campaign, including life, marriage and family.

“I was really impressed with Cindy McCain’s speech, said Dorothy Fleming, who attended from Minnesota. “She really came off as gracious and humble and seemed to be a lovely role model.”

Catholic author Deal Hudson was also present, and noted that McCain was steadily improving his relations with Catholics nationwide.

“McCain is being received very well among Catholics; he has a natural appeal to them,” said Hudson, “They are getting word that he is both pro-life and pro-family and they appreciate his patriotism.”

Hudson also noted that some Catholics were attracted to McCain’s softer tone on immigration, and others were watching his views on nominating judges. Campaign manager Rick Davis reassured Catholics at the event that McCain would nominate strict constructionist judges for the Supreme Court.

“A lot of people don’t realize how pro-life he is,” added Hudson, noting McCain’s 25-year pro-life record. “Most of the Catholics I talk to are surprised.”

Last month, McCain received the quiet endorsement of the National Right to Life for the general election, although the organization has had a rocky relationship with him in the past. In the 2000 presidential primaries, National Right to Life campaigned against McCain and endorsed his rival George W. Bush.

McCain received mixed results among Catholic voters in the 2008 primaries but gradually took the lead as the campaign gained momentum. In South Carolina, he won 35% of Catholics who attended church weekly, while Mitt Romney received 28%, followed by Fred Thompson at 18% and Mike Huckabee at 14%.

Catholic voter Bernard King of Kentucky said that it was disappointing to end up with McCain as the Republican nominee.

“On the issue of embryonic stem cells, McCain voted the same as both Clinton and Obama,” he said, “There’s a reason that we didn’t support him in 2000, and I think that it’s outrageous that we are expected to vote for him today.”

Hudson said that it was not so much McCain’s political stance on the issues, but rather that McCain was perceived by some as “aloof” and not as eager to reach out to religious groups.

“I think that he is talking about religion in a more positive way and having some good meetings and discussions with religious voters,” he said. Hudson has joined the list of Catholics who are supporting McCain and has given the campaign some informal advice on Catholic outreach.

McCain also joined notable Catholic leaders as he attended a White House dinner in honor of the papal visit. The guests included all five Catholic Supreme Court Justices: Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas.

A spokesman from the McCain campaign indicated that McCain plans to give a speech on his vision for judges soon, and will appoint Brownback and former Solicitor General Theodore Olson to his judicial advisory committee.

Catholics React

Joe Cella, a Catholic activist and president of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, noted that McCain was warmly received by many of the attendees. He received a standing ovation when he was introduced.

Although McCain did not speak at the event, he spent some time before Bush’s speech greeting the attendees with Brownback.

Cella said that both Democratic presidential candidates were invited to the event, but that Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., “politely declined” and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., never responded.

Catholics United, an activist group, protested outside the hotel where the breakfast was being held.

Chris Korzen, executive director of Catholics United, was unequivocal in criticizing the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast as well as President Bush and McCain.

“The decision to invade Iraq and the support for certain forms of torture are the two greatest lapses of moral judgment by a public official in my lifetime,” he said. “To host President Bush and John McCain without addressing these concerns is offensive to Catholics and to Pope Benedict’s message of peace.”

Cella noted that although some Catholics do not support the Iraq war, many are supporting McCain because of their opposition to the Democrat candidates’ support for abortion rights.

“It all boils down to an increasingly stark contrast to a choice between the remaining candidates,” he said, “with issues of concern to Roman Catholics, primarily with the defense for life at all stages.”

Catholic voter Joseph Fino of Columbus, Ohio, said that he was opposed to voting for McCain and would probably vote for a third-party candidate.

“If we truly want to exercise our vote properly and utilize our democracy to the fullness of its potential we have to vote for whom we think is the best candidate, not the mere lesser of evils,” he said.

But Peter Wolfgang, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, feels that Church-going Catholics are “pragmatic” and will not, in a close election, cast votes for a candidate that could turn out to be a “spoiler.”

“We don’t want a repeat of 1990, when so many middle-of-the-road folks voted for Ross Perot, causing the defeat of a pro-life candidate and ensuring a pro-abortion presidency for the next eight years,” Wolfgang said, referring to Bill Clinton.

McCain, though, has a lot of work to do in winning over Catholic voters on the embryonic stem-cell issue.

John Oppie, also a Catholic voter, noted that while McCain was not his first choice for the nomination, he would still vote for him in November, rather than Obama or Clinton. “I do like McCain because of his for the most part pro-life position, his strong love of America and because he is a man of courage who sticks to his guns, even if I don’t always like his convictions,” he said.

In spite of McCain’s difficulties winning the support of religious voters in the past, Hudson noted that his efforts were already having an effect in faith-based groups.

“The key is going to be, how much the campaign commits to religious coalition building,” he said. “That vote is there to get and to win, the campaign just has to continue making an effort and counteract the perception that originally there wasn’t a lot of affection there.”

Charlie Spiering writes from

Washington, D.C.