DALLAS, Aug. 3 -- President Bush told an effervescent crowd of 2,500 Catholics at the annual convention of the Knights of Columbus on Tuesday that they have a friend in the White House who will work with them to restrict abortion, provide vouchers for parochial schools and champion a constitutional amendment to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
Bush spoke for 35 minutes without mentioning his Democratic opponent. But there was no mistaking that the nation's largest Roman Catholic fraternal order was turning a cold shoulder toward Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the first Catholic to run for president since John F. Kennedy in 1960 and a supporter of abortion rights.
"Four more years!" delegates to the convention roared as Bush entered the hall and embraced their leader, Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson. As a nonprofit charitable organization, the Knights are forbidden by tax laws from making political endorsements. But Anderson gave Bush a warm welcome, thanking him for "supporting the right to life of unborn children" and "restoring moral integrity to the office of the president."
The speech was part of the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign's effort to court Catholic voters, who make up about a quarter of the U.S. population and an equal or higher percentage of the electorate in such battleground states as Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio and Michigan -- all of which Bush plans to visit in a campaign swing through the Midwest this week.
During the 2000 election, the nation's 66 million Catholics narrowly favored Vice President Al Gore over Bush, 49 percent to 47 percent. Recent polls indicate that Catholics, overall, are again leaning Democratic. But Bush appears to be making inroads, particularly among the most fervent churchgoers. According to a survey of 3,500 voters by University of Akron professor John Green, Bush holds a 49 percent to 40 percent lead among the approximately one-third of all Catholics who say they attend Mass at least once a week. Kerry is well ahead among less frequent churchgoers, 58 percent to 35 percent.
Against that backdrop, the Knights of Columbus group was a key audience for Bush. With 1.4 million members in the United States, the Knights are not only the world's biggest lay Catholic men's society but also a bastion of Catholic traditionalism. A dozen senior prelates were in the audience for Bush's speech, including Cardinals Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, William Keeler of Baltimore, Edward Egan of New York and Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"Although he's a Catholic, John Kerry doesn't talk about the things I believe in. His support of abortion -- he's got a different agenda," said William M. Mulvihill, a delegate from Richmond.
Robert McLoughlin, a delegate from Prospect Heights, Ill., said, "If Kerry were here, we'd want to hear what he had to say." He added that he believes Catholics "have gotten past" supporting a candidate solely because he is a fellow Catholic.
Bush, who was reared Episcopalian and is now a born-again Christian and practicing Methodist, laced his usual stump speech to religious groups with praise for the Knights. He noted that his younger brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, is a member of the organization, as is H. James Towey, head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
"The Knights are soldiers in the armies of compassion. You're foot soldiers. You've heard the call," Bush said. "You have a friend in this administration. You have somebody who wants to work with you to change America for the better."
Bush used the occasion to announce $188 million in grants under his four-year-old "faith-based" initiative to help religious charities compete for federal funds. The new money, approved by Congress this year, included $43 million for the Compassion Capital Fund, which supports soup kitchens, homeless shelters, drug treatment centers and other social services; $45.5 million for a program to pair volunteer mentors with children who have a parent in prison; and nearly $100 million for 14 states and one tribal organization to provide vouchers for substance abuse treatment. Individuals will be able to use the vouchers to pay for the treatment program of their choice, including programs that are pervasively religious.
Surrounded on the podium by rows of Knights in colorful headdresses and matching capes, Bush said he is changing the "culture inside government which resents and fears religious charities, and has discriminated against them."
Before the speech, Bush picked up $1.6 million at a luncheon at the home of Dallas software entrepreneur Larry Lacerte, according to the Republican National Committee. The fundraiser was closed to the media.
Bush got a formal nod of support Tuesday from Nancy Reagan, despite her opposition to his policy limiting embryonic stem cell research. "The campaign is certainly about more than one issue," said Reagan spokeswoman Joanne Drake, who described the former first lady as in "full and complete support of President Bush's candidacy."