TRENTON, N.J. -- There is definitely a battle under way in this presidential battleground, and it's being waged amid the holy pictures and Halloween decorations at the Holy Cross parish school in the heart of Trenton's Polish-American community.
Nearly all of the combatants in this overwhelmingly Catholic region -- in a 40 percent Catholic state -- are former supporters of President Bush who on the eve of the first presidential debate are struggling with three unappealing choices.
They don't like Democratic nominee Bill Clinton and even find him a little frightening. Most dismiss independent candidate Ross Perot as an ego-driven eccentric who isn't serious about serving. But they are so disappointed and disenchanted with the Republican incumbent that they are reluctant to take a chance on him again.
"It's a very hard decision; everyone is torn," said Patricia Palinczar, 47, principal of this Catholic grade school and until recently a lifelong resident of the inner-city neighborhood around it. "It's probably going to be a last-minute kind of a thing for me. This is the first time that's ever happened."
An active Democrat who voted for Mr. Bush in 1988, Mrs. Palinczar said she has doubts about whether Mr. Clinton can measure up to the job of president. "I don't feel secure in giving him my vote," she says.
Winning back voters like Mrs. Palinczar and the other Catholics who make up more than one-fifth of the electorate -- including huge shares of swing states of the Northeast and Midwest -- is vital to Mr. Bush's hopes of preventing what polls suggest could be a Clinton landslide.
Although a majority of Catholic voters are registered Democrats, nearly half voted for the president in the last election. And many ++ Catholics care deeply about certain issues on which the president has taken a strong and opposite stand from Mr. Clinton's, such as federal aid to parochial schools.
Around the table in the tiny teachers' lounge at Holy Cross, the talk is that the 100-year-old inner-city church might lose its school if parents don't get a break with tuition. Holy Cross already spends more on its students than it charges. The difference comes from blue-collar parishioners who are staggering with high unemployment and property tax bills that just doubled.
"I've been here 21 years, and this is the worst I've ever seen it," said Barbara Robutin, 41, a first-grade teacher who said she is inclined to vote for Mr. Bush mainly because "I'd like to continue teaching."
But even in the face of such obvious self-interest, Mr. Bush's promise of a $1,000-a-year GI Bill for kids to provide vouchers that could be used in private or parochial schools is not necessarily persuasive.
"I just don't see it happening," said Donna Caliendo, 25, a fourth-grade teacher who says she has decided to leave the Bush ranks to vote for Mr. Clinton. "He talks about it, but when's it going to happen?"
Jasenka Derrico, 50, a special education teacher at Holy Cross, says she has become so disillusioned after voting for Mr. Bush last time that none of the candidates' promises mean much to her.
"You can't believe anyone anymore," she said. "They do a lot of talking, but where's the result? President Bush hasn't done anything about the economy. It's gotten worse."
As with nearly all other voters this year, the economy is the overwhelming issue for most Catholics, and their frustration with Mr. Bush relates directly to his failure to spare the country from the current hard times.
"You've got to blame somebody. Why not blame the man in charge," said Dennis Caclori, 36, who works in a nearby supermarket and is worried about losing his job.
In New Jersey, where the unemployment rate of 9 percent is among the highest in the country, the trauma of recession has also cut deeply into the president's core constituency of middle-class and upper-middle class white-collar Republicans.
At St. Robert's Bellarmine on the edge of horse country in suburban Monmouth County, where Mass is celebrated in an ascetic-looking multipurpose hall and the Irish-born priest, the Rev. Thomas O'Connor, is the only sign of the old-time religion, laid-off business executives have had to borrow from the parish poor fund.
One family has been hit by a double layoff, with the accountant husband out of work for two years and the wife, an elementary school teacher, reduced to occasional jobs substituting.
"I'm not pleased with either of the major party candidates' platform on the economy," said the wife, a former Bush supporter who is now undecided and asked that her name not be used. "We have not been dealing with a number of issues. We should have seen this coming."
In such circumstances, Bush issues such as abortion, family values and aid to parochial schools pale for many Catholics.
"Coming from a Republican family, it's sounds terrible that you're going to be deciding who to vote for at the last minute, but that's how I feel," said Jeannette Coplitz, 32, a mother of two and part-time bookkeeper. "The economy is so bad I've got to work two jobs just to keep my head above water."
There is really no such thing as a Catholic vote any more, says John White, associate professor of politics at Catholic University in Washington. Gone are the days of 1928, when Irish Catholics in Boston turned out at the rate of 80 percent to 90 percent to support Democratic nominee and fellow Catholic Al Smith, he said.
And the overwhelming Catholic vote that helped put John F. Kennedy in the the White House in 1960 cannot be matched with a single-issue appeal because Catholics have become such a diverse group.
Age and gender are now better predictors of how votes will go, Mr. White said, particularly among young women, who appear to strongly favoring Mr. Clinton.
In fact, many young Catholic women say they even agree with the Democratic nominee's support of abortion rights, which is sharply at odds with the anti-abortion view of the Vatican.
Some of them may be looking for another Kennedy.
"I think we need a little bit more enthusiasm in the country," said Maryann Minar, 24, another teacher at Holy Cross, recalling family stories of the Kennedy election. "I have never felt that real fever for politics. I'd like to."
But older women tend to agree that Bill Clinton is no Jack Kennedy.
"I just don't like Bill Clinton," said Nancy Zanetti, 37, of St. Robert's parish. "I can't quite put my finger on it, but there's something not quite kosher about him -- if you'll pardon a Catholic using that term.
"I'll probably vote for President Bush, but I'm not happy about it," she said. "I think I have a bad choice."