WASHINGTON — The Republican Party sees great potential in one bloc of untapped voters: churchgoing Catholics. But the party faces an uphill battle winning the traditionally Democratic group.

“In order to grow as a party, we must continually reach out,” said Republican National Committee Jim Gilmore, who spoke via satellite to a new-formed National Catholic Leadership Forum in Washington April 25.

The new organization will emerge from last year's Catholic Task Force and will encourage “team leaders” to introduce Mass-attending Catholics to the Republican Party.

“The time for talk is over,” said Deal Hudson, publisher of Crisis and the GOP's new national chairman for Catholic outreach. “The time to organize Catholics behind the party of life — that time has begun.”

“We need a presence in our dioceses. We need a people in our parishes,” said Steven Wagner, president of QEV Analytics and member of the Catholic Task Force.

In addition to the grass roots, Catholics will increasingly vote Republican, Wagner said, because President Bush “talks the Catholic language.” He noted how Bush talked about the “culture of life” at the opening of the John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C.

Karl Rove, the president's senior advisor, said that Bush's “compassionate conservatism” fits well with the Catholic Church's principles of subsidiarity and solidarity.

“Catholic teaching is between libertarian indifference and bureaucratic centralization,” Rove told the audience.

But winning the Catholic vote is difficult, because of the diversity of America's 60 million Catholics.

“There is no such thing as a ‘Catholic vote,’” said Sen. Rick Santorum, a Catholic Republican representing Pennsylvania. “There are at least two Catholic votes.”

He noted that among all Americans, not just Catholics, church attendance was the No. 1 indicator of how a person would vote.

“If you went to church once a week, 65% voted for Bush. If you went to church less than that or not at all, 68% voted for Gore,” said Santorum. “I believe the same would be true for Catholics.”

Wagner said that Catholics are following this pattern increasingly. He noted that while Bush won only 47% of the total Catholic vote, he won 55% of the active Catholics. “That matches Reagan's landslide in 1984 and almost matches Nixon's landslide in 1972,” he said.

And the Catholic vote proved decisive in this the closest presidential race in decades, said former GOP chairman, Jim Nicholson.

“By increasing the Catholic vote by 10% across the country in such a close election, it obviously made a difference,” said Nicholson, whom Bush has nominated for ambassador to the Vatican.

That outreach consisted of 3 million mailings sent to Catholic families as well as 1.3 million get-out-the-vote phone calls, Wagner noted.

Because of these efforts, Bush's campaign says it won 22,000 additional Catholic votes in New Hampshire, 146,000 new Catholic votes in Missouri and 107,000 more Catholic votes in Florida than Bob Dole had reaped in each of those states in 1996. Without these gains, Bush would have lost these three states and the presidential election.

But Kate O'Bierne, Washington Editor of National Review, said that the Republican Party has been slow to notice how many Catholics they have already.

“The single largest denomination in Republican households is Catholic,” she noted. “But the Republican Party at the national level doesn't look Catholic. The leadership looks Southern and Protestant.”

What About Abortion?

Bill McGurn, chief editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal, said that Republicans need to do better to inform Catholics of where the candidates stand on the issues. Some of his friends didn't even know where the two presidential candidates stood on the issue of abortion.

“I was always stunned that they didn't know Al Gore's position on abortion,” said McGurn. “I think that President Bush has been wonderful speaking on the culture of life, but the Republican Party has been somewhat ambivalent on abortion. There was talk of a pro-choice running mates,” said McGurn.

The Republican Party has a duty to inform Catholics how they differ from Democrats on abortion, he added.

“[Catholic Democrats] actually don't want to know the Republican Party's position on abortion,” said McGurn. “They want to be able to say that the Republican Party is just the same as the Democrats.”

Rep. Chris Smith, Catholic Republican from New Jersey, said that the Republican Party would earn more Catholic votes if it would speak loud and clear in defense of the unborn.

“Until we stop this ‘big tent’ nonsense, we're not going to get anywhere,” said Smith. Regarding the pro-life message, Smith said, “We should be willing to shout it from the rooftops.”

Joshua Mercer writes from Washington, D.C.