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Pope Brings Up A Point

Pope Benedict XVI lands at Andrews Air Force Base today at 4 p.m. Eastern Time, where he will be greeted by President Bush to kick off his inaugural papal visit to the United States. For the next six days, the Pope will visit Washington and New York, even celebrating his 81st birthday in the country (for which the White House has prepared a special dinner that Il Papa will not be attending).

Benedict's presence is sure to capture the attention of Pennsylvania Catholics, a large segment of the voting population that will head to the polls next week. 29% of Pennsylvania voters are Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, five points higher than the national average. And while ethnic Catholics were once a huge part of the Democratic coalition, that is no longer the case. Still, the group will play a huge role in the Pennsylvania primaries.

Democrats who focus now on winning primary Catholic voters will have a more difficult time wooing that group back in November. In 2004, for the first time in generations, President Bush won more Catholic votes than his Democratic opponent, even though John Kerry is Catholic. When it comes to social issues, Catholics naturally favor the Republican Party, though Hispanic Catholics have increasingly moved toward Democrats.

With John McCain heading the GOP ticket this year, though, his more moderate stance on immigration and his stated anti-abortion views could attract a number of those Hispanic voters. For Democrats, McCain's appeal could spell trouble in heavily Catholic states like New Jersey, New Mexico and Nevada, three potentially swing states where Catholics make up a larger percentage of the populace than the national average.

Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have hired Catholic outreach directors, the New York Times reports, and on Sunday the two headed to Messiah College, a Catholic institution, for a forum on faith and values. Clinton has the backing of prominent Catholics like Robert F. Kennedy's children, who penned an open letter to the state's Catholic voters recently, while Obama has backing from Senator Bob Casey and suburban Philadelphia Rep. Patrick Murphy, both Catholic.

Obama and Clinton also went as far as issuing statements welcoming Benedict to the U.S. "We are blessed to receive a visit from His Holiness, Pope Benedict, to the United States this week," Clinton said. "Not only is he the spiritual leader of America's great Catholic community, he is a strong and effective voice for the cause of peace, freedom, and justice as well as the fight against poverty and disease." Clinton also noted that Vatican City is a global leader on energy conservation.

"At a time when American families face rising costs at home and a range of worries abroad, the theme of Pope Benedict's journey, 'Christ Our Hope,' offers comfort and grace as well as a challenge to all faith communities to put our faith into action for the common good," Obama said in a statement after extending a welcome from himself and wife Michelle. "It will not only be Catholics who are listening to the Holy Father's message of hope and peace; all Americans will be listening with open hearts and minds."

Few religions vote as a bloc, including evangelical Christians. But Catholic voters from the Philadelphia suburbs to the Pittsburgh area could make the difference next Tuesday if they vote en masse for one candidate over another. It's a big enough segment of the population that the candidates might even try to appeal to them in tomorrow's Democratic debate, to be held at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia. In fact, if he's not doing anything, Benedict himself might want to drop by. Certainly both candidates would love to give him a ticket.