By RACHEL ZOLL, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — Forget the Mormon moment. The religious group that seems to be figuring most prominently in the presidential election right now is the Roman Catholic Church.
With Mitt Romney's recent choice of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as running mate, this campaign is the first in which Catholics are on both major party tickets. Vice President Joe Biden and Ryan are lifelong Catholics who attend Mass regularly and credit the church with shaping their views.
At the same time, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan plans a prime-time appearance next week by giving the benediction at the Republican National Convention after Romney becomes the first Mormon presidential nominee from a major political party.
Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is leading the fight against President Barack Obama's mandate for birth control coverage in health insurance.
And a group called the Republican Union PAC announced plans last Tuesday to spend $1 million in a campaign targeting Catholic voters in five battleground states.
With little over two months until the election, both Romney and Obama are working to court these traditional swing voters given that polls show the race is tight and anything can tip the balance, particularly in competitive states like Ohio and Pennsylvania that have sizable Catholic communities.
It's unclear how this week's focus on abortion rights — sparked by Missouri Rep. Todd Akin's comment about women's bodies preventing pregnancies in the case of "legitimate rape" — will play with these voters.
While Catholics don't vote as a bloc, they comprise about one-quarter of the electorate and the candidate who wins Catholic voters usually wins the White House. Obama won the total Catholic vote in 2008, 54 percent to 45 percent, but lost white Catholics, 52 percent to 47 percent.
So far this year, neither Obama nor Romney has established a consistent lead among Catholic voters.
Obama had a narrow edge in a July survey by the Pew Research Center, but Romney was slightly ahead among white Catholics. The survey found that half of Catholic voters said Obama best reflects their views on social issues such as abortion and gay rights. One-third of Catholics said the same about Romney, who opposes abortion rights.
In the Republican primary contests earlier this year, Romney won majorities of Catholic voters, even though his rivals included two Catholic candidates: Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.
Romney's invitation to Dolan may be the Republican's most overt effort yet to woo Catholics.
Dolan's archdiocese is one of more than 40 Catholic groups suing over the birth-control coverage policy, which Romney has also been hammering in an ad filled with images of the late Pope John Paul II.
The administration's birth control mandate exempts houses of worship but includes faith-affiliated employers such as hospitals, charities and colleges. Obama promised to change the requirement so that insurance companies and not faith-affiliated employers would pay for the coverage. But details haven't been worked out and many religious leaders say the compromise appears to be unworkable.
Dolan has said the White House policy, among others, is "strangling" the church.
Dolan's spokesman said the cardinal's involvement at the Republican convention is not an endorsement. It's traditional for a Catholic leader to offer prayers at Republican and Democratic conventions. And despite the lawsuits, the cardinal invited Obama, along with Romney, to a high-profile October charity dinner for the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation that usually draws presidents and presidential candidates.
But critics say Dolan's participation in the convention is the latest of several actions by American bishops that give the appearance they are advocating for the GOP. Dolan, who served as Milwaukee archbishop from 2002-2009 and befriended Ryan there, said on his Sirius XM radio show last week that the congressman is "remarkably upright," ''honest," and "a great public servant."
"When Catholics in the pews see bishops repeatedly hammering the Obama administration, then find Cardinal Dolan there at the Republican convention, that's not a particularly subtle message," said John Gehring, of the Faith & Public Life Action Fund, a liberal advocacy group in Washington. "Whether it's intended or not, this gives the appearance that the nation's most prominent Catholic leader is baptizing the Republican nominee."
Stephen Schenck, a political scientist at The Catholic University of America and an Obama supporter, said that while parishioners don't base their vote on what bishops say about a particular lawmaker, church leaders give "a kind of moral legitimacy to participation in politics, a kind of permission slip to feel good about your candidate."
Both Biden and Ryan have had their share of quarrels with bishops.
Biden personally opposes abortion and has voted against public funding for the procedure, but supports abortion rights. As a result, a Delaware bishop in 2006 threw out plans to name a Catholic school building for the lawmaker and other bishops have called Biden's — and Obama's — support for legalized abortion immoral.
Ryan also opposes abortion, but has sparred with bishops over cuts to social programs in the 2013 House Republican budget plan.
The congressman drafted then defended the proposal by citing Catholic moral theology. The congressman said his budget plan was grounded in church teaching on helping the poor, which he explained could be accomplished if Americans "don't make people dependent on government."
He cited the Catholic concept of "subsidiarity," or finding solutions at the lowest level possible in society, such as families and local government.
Leaders of the bishops' social justice and peace committees complained to House leaders that, "a just spending bill cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons." The bishops voted 171-26 at a national meeting in June to draft a lengthier statement explaining why. The statement won't be released until after the election.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.