WASHINGTON — When the curtain goes up on the Democrats’ 2008 convention Aug. 25, the party will begin a campaign to change Catholic voters’ perceptions.

Pollster Fritz Wenzel says the support of Catholic voters likely will be crucial to Sen. Barack Obama’s chances of victory in the 2008 presidential election race.

The reason is clear: abortion.

But Wenzel, director of communications for Zogby International, has a warning for the presumptive Democratic nominee: Unless Obama modifies his pro-abortion stance, he’ll find it difficult to counter presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain’s current lead among Catholics.

“When you look at social issues, the key issue for Catholics according to our polling is going to be abortion,” Wenzel said. Zogby International’s most recent presidential race poll found that McCain held only a narrow 42%-41% edge over Obama among all voters, but the Republican candidate enjoyed a much wider 51%-34% lead among Catholic voters. The telephone poll of 1,011 likely voters was conducted for Associated TV July 31-Aug. 1.

Since the 1980s, Catholic voters have shifted away from their traditionally strong support for Democratic candidates in presidential elections partly because of the Democratic Party’s formal commitment to abortion rights.

In 2004, exit polling done for The Associated Press and television networks by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International found that 52% of Catholics voted for President George W. Bush in 2004 and 47% voted for Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. Bush was elected with 51% of the popular vote, compared to Kerry’s 48%.

And although Wenzel expects the 2008 presidential race “is going to be an election that in the main is going to be argued over the economy,” he thinks social issues will be important to the outcome in some key swing states.

And the pollster predicts that on the campaign trail this fall, McCain will highlight the sharp difference between his pro-life position on abortion and Obama’s 100% pro-abortion rating as a legislator. That’s because highlighting the issue should help McCain cement his support among the Republicans’ conservative base, which has been skeptical of McCain.

Said Wenzel, “This is the key issue he could use to bring that base home on Election Day.”

Courting Trouble

The question of Supreme Court judicial nominations will be the likely focus of the campaign debate regarding abortion.

Obama has indicated that if elected president he intends to make it a top priority to nominate pro-abortion judges.

In contrast, in a speech May 6 at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, McCain pledged to nominate only lawyers with “a proven commitment to judicial restraint.” He attacked Obama’s “judicial activism” and was particularly critical of the Democratic candidate for voting against the confirmation of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, who are both Catholic.

If Obama wants to erode the advantage McCain has with many Catholic voters because of the abortion issue, Wenzel said the Democratic candidate needs to soften his position on Supreme Court appointments and declare that he won’t have a pro-abortion litmus test for nominees. But Wenzel added it would be strategically difficult for Obama to make that move because that would alienate the highly vocal abortion lobby, which is a key component of the Democratic Party’s base.

“His problem is that he risks inflaming the left wing of his party by approaching that sort of stance,” said Wenzel, who noted that such voters could opt instead for independent left-of-center candidates Ralph Nader or Cynthia McKinney.

Added Wenzel, “This is why he, like John Kerry four years ago, finds himself in a real box on this issue because you’ve got an activist left wing and you’ve got a Catholic vote that is very strong on this particular issue.”

Catholic author Harold Fickett, who wrote an article earlier this year for the Internet site Godspy entitled “Why I Love Obama (… But I Won’t Vote For Him),” is one Catholic voter who likes much of what Obama represents — but finds it impossible to consider voting for him because of the abortion issue.

Fickett says he still feels Obama’s candidacy “is a wonderful thing for America,” in that it represents a step forward towards an era of post-racial American politics.

“If he were pro-life, I’d really consider voting for him,” said Fickett, author of The Living Christ and co-author with Evangelical leader Chuck Colson of The Faith: What Christians Believe, Why They Believe It, and Why It Matters.

But Fickett also believes there is no chance Obama will shift on abortion “because philosophically he’s not there.”

As for the Supreme Court, Fickett predicted Obama’s judicial nominees would be as stridently pro-abortion as current Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the former general counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union who was nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

“If you voted for Obama,” Fickett said, “I can absolutely guarantee you every appointment will be Ruth Bader Ginsburg writ large.”

Abortion Plank

In early August, the Democratic Party unveiled a revised party platform statement on abortion, affirming its support for abortion rights.

The new abortion plank states: “The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.”

Nevertheless, several liberal religious leaders who participated in an Aug. 11 conference call with media said it’s more pro-life than the old plank because, by incorporating language that calls for the promotion of adoption services, it encourages women to choose to continue pregnancies.

“It’s never been as explicitly stated that the Democratic Party supports a woman’s decision to have her child, and offers her practical support to have her child,” said Protestant minister Jim Wallis, founder of the liberal religious network Sojourners. “It’s an historic step forward.”

But according to Deirdre McQuade, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, the revised abortion plank is actually a step backward.

That’s because, unlike the 2004 platform, it contains no commitment to making abortion “rare,” McQuade said. “Although it’s good to acknowledge the good of childbirth and motherhood, overall the platform is actually weaker, not stronger,” she said.

McQuade pointed out that paragraph 22 of the U.S. bishops’ November 2007 document “Forming Consciences About Faithful Citizenship” singles out abortion as a prime example of an “intrinsically evil“ action that “must always be rejected and opposed and must never be supported or condoned” by Catholics.

Said McQuade, “The revised party platform … is in principle committed to this intrinsic evil, and we cannot support that even though it may be trying to move in a better, more constructive direction.”

Given the Democratic Party’s position on abortion, and its potential for alienating Catholics and other pro-life voters, Wenzel thinks Obama is probably hoping the issue won’t be prominent during the campaign.

“The best thing that could happen for Barack Obama is for this not to be an issue in the general election — at least not a big issue,” Wenzel said. “The problem is it helps John McCain for it to be an issue, so it certainly will be raised before the general election, because one candidate has a vested interest in it being on the front pages and in the dialogue.”

(CNS contributed to this report.)

Tom McFeely is based

in Victoria, British Columbia.

The “Faithful Citizenship” document is available on the Internet at faithfulcitizenship.org. An article by McQuade entitled “Abortion and Faithful Citizenship” is available on the same site at faithfulcitizenship.org/media/article/mcquade.

Questionable Committee

WASHINGTON — Sen. Barack Obama is serious about wooing Catholic voters — earlier this year he assembled a Catholic National Advisory Council with 26 members, including some of the most prominent Catholic Democrats in America.

Nevertheless, Catholic League president Bill Donohue wasn’t impressed. That’s because, according to Donohue, the council was composed exclusively of Catholics who are out of step with the Church on abortion and on two other key political issues: embryonic stem-cell research and school vouchers.

U.S. Sens. Christopher Dodd, D.-Conn., Edward Kennedy, D.-Mass., John Kerry D-Mass., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., were all named as members of the committee. Dodd and Leahy both earned 100% pro-abortion scores from NARAL Pro-Choice America in 2007, while Kennedy and Kerry were rated at 90% pro-abortion.

Also serving on the panel was Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat who is rumored to be one of the frontrunners to serve as Obama’s vice-presidential running mate. In May, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., requested Sebelius not seek to receive Communion until she publicly renounces her opposition to restrictions on legal abortion.

“Practicing Catholics have every right to be insulted by Obama’s advisory group,” Donohue said in a May 2 press release. “What is the purpose of having an advisory group about matters Catholic when most of its members reject the Catholic position?”

Members of the advisory council replied to Donohue in a joint May 8 letter. In it they called abortion “a profound moral issue” but said that “many Catholics are fed up” with the “divisive tactics and empty promises” that Republicans have employed with respect to the abortion issue.

Said the letter, “Our measure of what it means to be a ‘good Catholic’ is not defined by the narrow pronouncements of partisan operatives; but rather by the rich teachings of our Church and our informed consciences.”

Donohue responded to the letter in a May 8 Catholic League press release.

“It is more than embarrassing — it is shocking — to read how these Catholics view abortion. The Catholic Church regards abortion, as well as embryonic stem-cell research, as ‘intrinsically evil.’ But not these folks,” Donohue said. “For them, abortion is merely ‘a profound moral issue.’”

“Sadly, it has been apparent for years that many who fancy themselves ‘progressive’ Catholics do not treat abortion the way they do racial discrimination,” Donohue added. “No one in his right mind says that the best way to combat racial discrimination is by changing people’s hearts and minds, not the law. Which is why we do both. But when it comes to abortion — including partial-birth abortion — the progressives settle for dialogue.”

Concluded Donohue: “It is so nice to know that Obama thinks abortion ‘presents a profound moral challenge.’ Is infanticide another ‘profound moral challenge’? To wit: When he was in the Illinois state senate he led the fight to deny health care to babies born alive who survived an abortion. That, my friends, is not a moral challenge — it’s a Hitlerian decision.”

— Tom McFeely