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Churchgoing Catholics returning to GOP fold

Gov. Sarah Palin has outsized impact on an important bloc in key battleground states.

Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, seen here stumping in Ohio Sept. 17, has helped the GOP gain ground among observant Catholic voters.

Stephan Savoia/AP

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Observant Catholics are returning to the Republican fold now that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has joined the GOP ticket – a shift that looks to be more enduring than a postconvention bounce. If the trend sticks, it will mark a partial setback for Democrats and the Obama campaign, who have vied vigorously for the pivotal votes of Roman Catholics.

Before the national political conventions, presidential contenders Barack Obama and John McCain were about splitting the votes of white Catholics who attend church weekly. That was a weak showing for the GOP’s Senator McCain; in 2004, President Bush carried this group 3 to 2.

McCain, however, has now opened a 16 percentage point lead among these Catholics, according to a poll released Thursday by the Pew Research Center. Still, there is good news for Senator Obama among Catholic voters: He continues to gain among Hispanics, two-thirds of whom are Catholic, and he is even with McCain in support among Catholics who attend mass occasionally or never.

Catholics are an important subset in presidential elections. More than 40 percent of them are unaffiliated with either party. In key battleground states in the Midwest and the Southwest, they make up as much as one-third of a state’s electorate.

But Catholics are not a monolithic bloc of voters.

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