DUBUQUE, Iowa -- No one doubted the Roman Catholic vote would be up for grabs in November, even before Mitt Romney named Paul Ryan as his running mate.
Now, the selection of Ryan, only the second Catholic ever nominated for national office by Republicans, all but guarantees a fierce election-year fight for the affections of Catholic voters -- or more specifically, whiteCatholics, who form the bulk of the Catholic vote here in this corner of Iowa and across the Rust Belt.
Four years ago, there wasn't much of a fight. President Barack Obama won Iowa Catholics, about a quarter of the electorate, by what the exit polls showed was an 18-percentage-point margin.
Yet there are signs in Dubuque, an overwhelmingly Catholic and traditionally Democratic stronghold of 58,000 on the banks of the Mississippi River, that suggest the president's support is much softer than last time.
In part, it's a reflection of the general erosion in the president's support, but it's also because of tensions between the administration and the Catholic Church over a federal mandate, which went into effect Aug. 1, that forces employers, including the Church, to cover contraceptive services in health plans.
Under pressure, Obama announced what he called an "accommodation" in February so that religious employers would not need to directly offer free contraceptive services. But many church leaders remain unhappy and even at the parish level, where there isn't necessarily lockstep support for the Church hierarchy's position, there is evidence the administration's handling of the matter left a bad impression.
Republican strategist Sara Fagen, a Catholic who grew up in Dubuque and served as George W. Bush's White House political director, said the underlying issue is more important.
"In places like Dubuque, being Catholic is not just about religion," she said. "It's about their culture. For some, it's an attack on their beliefs in pro-life issues. For some, it's an attack on freedom of religion. Yet for many people in towns like Dubuque, it's an attack on our culture."
Local conservatives say the mandate, along with the president's embrace of gay marriage, energizes them in a way they were not four years ago. In August 2008, for example, the Dubuque County Republicans struggled to get half a dozen volunteers for door knocking. Two Saturdays ago, 26 showed up.
"The religious issue is a big one," said GOP co-chairman Mike Carr, a retired Air Force colonel.
GOP Rep. Rep. Steve King, a Catholic from the more conservative and less Catholic northwestern corner of the state said, "The Catholic Church has never been galvanized like it is right now."
Four days of interviews here with local politicians, activists and voters revealed that the contraception mandate alone isn't the problem -- many Catholics can get past that. Rather, it's the cumulative effect of the mandate, the economy and other issues.
"I was 100 percent for him. Now I'm not so sure," said Nick Noel, 69, a lifelong Dubuque Democrat who retired from the nearby John Deere plant a decade ago. "It's the economy. It doesn't seem to be getting any better."
The corollary is that many aren't ready to vote for Romney, either.
"Honestly, I don't like Romney, but Obama just isn't getting things done," Noel added, lingering after a recent Sunday Mass.
The Romney campaign, however, has stepped up its national efforts to win over Catholics. The candidate visited the Pope John Paul II memorial while in Poland last month, and a clip of Romney quoting the late pope appears in an ad released Thursday that suggests Obama does not share the "values" of Catholics.
"President Obama has been the best organizer in this whole effort," said Joshua Baca, Romney's national coalitions director. "This is a great opportunity to organize a very big group of voters. There's a clear contrast between us and the president."
The campaign is in the process of hiring several outreach directors to tap into Catholic networks, and there are plans to dispatch a faith coordinator to every target state. Six former ambassadors to the Holy See signed on as co-chairs of Catholics for Romney last week, and a larger "national advisory board" will roll out after the Ryan buzz starts to subside.
"We will be making an aggressive push to make sure we're going pew to pew, church to church, community to community," Baca said. "We firmly believe this is a core group of individuals that are going to break very well for Gov. Romney."
But Pat Murphy, a Democratic state representative from Dubuque, said Republicans have used wedge issues like gay marriage and abortion to gin up turnout so often that they've lost their potency. He would know: As Speaker of the Iowa House in 2010, he blocked a GOP drive to put a gay marriage ban on the ballot. He won reelection after being targeted for defeat, but Democrats lost their majority.
Murphy thinks Obama will win because he has a superior grass-roots organization in the state. He said he's knocked on 1,400 doors this year: Abortion has come up once, gay marriage hasn't come up at all, and there's been "little discussion" about contraception.
"I think you'll hear them a lot starting after Labor Day, right after the conventions," he said in an interview in his living room as a steady stream of attack ads ran during Olympics programming. "Most people aren't focused on social issues. ... There's fewer and fewer people getting affected by the abortion issue because the only time they hear about it is the 60 days before an election."
Democrats insist that Ryan's selection as Romney's running mate actually gives them an opening, particularly among liberal Catholics focused on social justice issues.
Even before Saturday's announcement, the Obama campaign hoped to tie Ryan's budget to Romney. Campaign officials cite recent speeches Obama delivered to the Urban League in New Orleans and Biden delivered to the NAACP as a preview for their pitch to churchgoing Catholics.
"The core of it really is fairness and equality," said Broderick Johnson, a senior advisor who spearheads outreach to the Catholic community.
Obama campaign officials insist the president can maintain roughly the level of support that he received from Catholics in 2008. They argue that many will be receptive to Obama's tax fairness message and that the church's history of embracing social justice will keep swaths of populist-minded voters in places like Dubuque from ultimately casting ballots in support of Romney. They dismiss the religious liberty attack as bunk.
"I don't feel any sense other than continued determination to work to get this president reelected," said Johnson.
While Obama will try to shore up his support this week with a three-day swing across Iowa, including a Wednesday stop in Dubuque, some local Democrats feel he's already got an ace in hole for use against Romney's Catholic running mate: Vice President Joe Biden.
"Joe is the secret weapon," said Teri Goodmann, a Dubuque Democrat who became close with Biden after he first ran for president in 1988. "People relate to Joe, and he's a great messenger for this ticket."
Biden can play the Catholic card as well as anyone. When he campaigned here in June, the vice president visited a local nunnery where he reminded the sisters that he's only the second Catholic to work in the White House -- the other being John F. Kennedy.
Goodman said she organized a dinner for Biden with a half-dozen Catholic couples at a hotel downtown. He asked everyone at the table to tell him what the administration is doing wrong. His longtime supporters were blunt: Why did they lead with health care? Did they lose the focus on jobs? How did they lose control of the campaign narrative?
Biden seemed to appreciate the feedback, Goodman asserted.
The administration still has some work to do to win over white Catholics nationally, though. While a Pew Research Center poll published last week showed Obama leading 51 percent to 42 percent among Catholics, that figure was inflated by Obama's wide percentage among Latino Catholics in noncompetitive states. Among white Catholics, many of whom are clustered in the Rust Belt, Romney led Obama 49 percent to 44 percent.
Iowa's most prominent Catholic, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, thinks Romney will carry the state because of numbers like that, which he expects will translate into a stronger-than-normal GOP performance here.
"Republicans will win western Iowa and do well in central Iowa, so in eastern Iowa the Catholic vote is going to be key," said Republican Gov. Terry Branstad.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said Ryan was the first Catholic ever nominated for national office by Republicans. William Miller, Barry Goldwater's running mate in 1964, was also Catholic.
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