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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are neck and neck in the polls, in the run-up to the Michigan Republican primary. But Romney seems to have an edge with one group in Michigan - Roman Catholics voters. Santorum, meanwhile, leads with Protestant and evangelical Christians voters there, even though Santorum is Catholic.

NPR's Sonari Glinton found out why.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Rick Santorum doesn't shy away from letting people know he's a man of faith. Here he is in Lincoln Park, Michigan, on the eastern part of the state.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

RICK SANTORUM: Thank you. Thank you very, very much. I appreciate it. It is great to here at a Knights of Columbus Hall on a Friday during Lent. How can you do better than that?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GLINTON: The Knights of Columbus is a fraternal service group - sort of like a Catholic version of groups like the Shriners. Rick Santorum is a member, and his faith is a central theme in his campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SANTORUM: You know, I'm a Catholic. And I'm told that one of the responsibilities of the church is to care for those who are the least among us. And I believe that - and that's a real responsibility for all of us.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

GLINTON: According to a Public Policy poll, Santorum's faith, and image as a family man, help give him double-digit leads in Michigan with Protestants, evangelicals, and those who consider themselves very conservative - though some national polls differ.

In the same poll, Romney, who's Mormon, leads the field with moderates, somewhat conservative voters and Catholics.

JOHN GREEN: So there's a lot of complexity there. Religion and politics often line up but they don't always correlate perfectly.

GLINTON: John Green is a professor of political science at the University of Akron. He says you can think of Catholicism on a continuum.

GREEN: There is the - what you might call the orthodoxy of religious beliefs. And someone like Senator Santorum is a very orthodox Catholic, in terms of religion. He holds very closely to the traditional teachings of the church.

GLINTON: That continuum moves from very traditional, to non.

GREEN: Some Catholic conservatives - or liberals, for that matter - may be turned off by a fellow parishioner or a Catholic candidate who is self-consciously a traditionalist.

GLINTON: Green says until the '60s, regardless of where Catholics stood on that continuum, they tended to vote as a group for Democrats. But as Catholics, many of whom were recent immigrants, began to assimilate and become more accepted, their views on politics began to splinter. And you can see that diversity of thought at almost any parish.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD AT CHURCH EVENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Four fried fish, one shrimp and a pizza.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All right.

GLINTON: Few things say Midwestern Roman Catholic like a Lenten Friday Night Fish Fry. At St. William's Parish in Walled Lake, Michigan, nearly a thousand parishioners and their friends are lined up for fried fish, shrimp and cheese pizza.

KATIE GOEBEL: But it's endless refills, so you can literally let the fat kid inside of you out, and eat as much as you want.

GLINTON: Katie Goebel's father runs the fish fry, but she's not just here for the fish. She's also here to see the candidate - in this case, Rick Santorum. She hasn't made up her mind who to vote for, but her faith will play a role.

GOEBEL: It does - I will admit, it does play a big role on issues like on contraception, abortion, things like that. But other things, like marriage and all that, I'm sort of up in the air. It - you know, people more my generation, we're seeing like, things like gay marriage and stuff like that as OK.

GLINTON: Jan and Tom Artushin both attend Mass regularly, and they're both undecided.

JAN ARTUSHIN: I think we have to focus on the economy and jobs.

TOM ARTUSHIN: Jobs and the economy, no doubt.

JAN ARTUSHIN: I really think that that's what we have to focus on. I think that the religious issues - I - that's - I think that right now, it's taking a back step because I think we are in such dire straits right now.

GLINTON: John Green, the professor, says Catholics vote in many ways like other groups - electability trumps faith, at least at this stage.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Walled Lake, Michigan.

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