MELISSA BLOCK, host:
On to politics now and the presidential race. In recent elections Catholics have been swing voters, tipping the national balance. And they're politically active this year as well. Exit polls show they've accounted for roughly one vote in four in the primaries. So far, Hillary Clinton has done better than Barack Obama among Catholic voters.
And as NPR's Don Gonyea reports from Toledo, they are critical to her chances in Ohio on March 4th.
DON GONYEA: Through January and on Super Tuesday, exit polls indicate that Senator Clinton won the Catholic vote overwhelmingly. In California, it was roughly 2 to 1 Catholics for Clinton. Same in Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut. She racked up big margins in New Mexico and Arizona, and won the demographic in every state except Missouri and Georgia.
So in the coming Ohio primary — seen as a must-win for Clinton — the Buckeye State's large population of older, white, ethnic Catholics is a strategic focus. Both campaigns know it, but that does not make their jobs easy, according to the University of Akron's John Green, who studies the intersection of religion and politics.
Dr. JOHN GREEN (Senior Fellow in Religion and American Politics, University of Akron): There certainly is no Catholic bloc vote these days, like there may have been, say, in the 1960 election, when John F. Kennedy was running for election and the first Catholic was elected to the White House.
GONYEA: It could be Senator Clinton has done well with Catholics because many are blue collar. Catholic voters tend to be older. Those are categories Clinton has carried. But, Green also points out that exit polls from Wisconsin, which voted on Tuesday, indicate that the Catholic gap that Clinton has enjoyed could be going away. There, Clinton and Obama split the Catholic vote.
(Soundbite of bowling pin rolling)
GONYEA: Wednesday night is league night at Jug's Bowling Center in a heavily Catholic, mostly working-class section of Toledo, Ohio.
Fifty-eight-year-old Bob Gehler is here with his wife, her sister and brother-in-law, and another friend whose name is Jim. Overhead, their scores on a screen. On the table, a crock pot with local delicacies.
Mr. BOB GEHLER: Turkey and chili(ph) with some cheese balls. One's a dessert and one's a regular cheese ball. And crackers.
GONYEA: Ask him about the election and Gehler is one of those Catholic voters Clinton is counting on in Ohio.
Mr. GEHLER: Hillary is groomed. She has more experience to get the things done.
GONYEA: But, wait a minute, Gehler is still considering Obama as well.
Mr. GEHLER: It's a toss-up. They're both good. I like them both, to tell you the truth.
GONYEA: We asked if the fact that he's Roman Catholic has any impact on his Election Day decision. Gehler says no. Same answer comes from the others around the table, including 61-year-old Maureen Samberg(ph).
GONYEA: Does that affect who you vote for? How you're…
Ms. MAUREEN SAMBERG: Being Catholic? No.
GONYEA: Not at all.
Ms. SAMBERG: No. I believe you should be a free-thinker. So I'm up to bowl.
GONYEA: These are voters who say their top issues are jobs, health care, and finding some way out of Iraq.
Father JIM AUTH: In the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Unidentified Group: Amen.
Father AUTH: Praise of our lord Jesus.
GONYEA: At Toledo's Regina Coeli Catholic Church, Father Jim Auth presides over the daily 8 a.m. Mass. In this largely Polish neighborhood, the majority of the three-dozen or so in attendance are retirees. Among them Sue Szyskowski, who describes herself as a retired homemaker.
Ms. SUE SZYSKOWSKI: Well, I think Hillary is smarter. She's very intelligent. And I think Obama is going to change everything. That's all he says. He's going to change this; he's going to do this. That's not possible. And he's too young and inexperienced.
GONYEA: Frank Desposito is a retired business manager.
Mr. FRANK DESPOSITO: I think Obama is a new face and probably new ideas, maybe a JFK type of situation. Hillary, I can't see how anybody can say, you know, change. She's 35 years in the business. What kind of change is she going to give you?
GONYEA: None of these Catholic Democratic voters mentions what is generally assumed to be the big issue for Catholics, abortion. Father Auth says the issue is important to them, but he says that they also look at the war, the death penalty or services for the poor.
As for pro-choice candidates.
Father AUTH: If they have voted pro-choice but have an ethic - a consistent ethic of life, we could vote for that. We wouldn't have a problem.
GONYEA: And even if Catholics don't vote in a bloc, what most do in the primaries may be a sign of their direction in November, especially in a big swing state like Ohio.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, Toledo.
BLOCK: And you can learn more about what's at stake in the upcoming primaries in Ohio and Texas at npr.org/elections.
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