WASHINGTON -- In 1992, Bill Clinton claimed the biggest share of the nation's Roman Catholics, a crucial group of swing voters who helped propel him to the White House.
But less than two years later, Mr. Clinton is in potential trouble with that constituency. A month before the president is to meet with Pope John Paul II in Baltimore, Catholic leaders -- liberal and conservative -- have warned the White House that Catholic voters are unhappy with his administration.
Public opinion surveys support that notion. And, in a subtle shift that could threaten Mr. Clinton's 1996 re-election chances, many of those disillusioned voters appear to be unhappy over issues that relate directly to Catholicism itself.
"It's not nice to spit in the eye of a sleeping giant," said Thomas Wykes, the executive director of the Catholic Campaign for America, a conservative Catholic lay group.
Michael Novak, a prominent Catholic author and fan of the president, concurs.
"There is a shakiness in the Catholic support for Mr. Clinton," Mr. Novak says, adding that probably no group is more important to his re-election chances. "Catholics are concentrated, they are dedicated voters and they are switch-voters. And no Democrat ever wins without them."
Catholic voters -- nearly 30 million strong -- make up 28 percent of the electorate. What's more, that vote is concentrated in the 10 most electoral-rich states, including the heartland states of Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania, which tend to be the battleground states in close elections.
In 1992, exit polls showed that Mr. Clinton outpolled President George Bush 44 percent to 35 percent among Catholics, with 20 percent going to Ross Perot. In a two-person race, according to Mr. Novak and other experts on Catholic voting trends, Mr. Clinton would need about 55 percent of the Catholic vote to win.
In June, the president's approval rating among Catholics was 50 percent, according to a Gallup poll. This summer, as the White House has tangled publicly with the Vatican over abortion at a United Nations population conference in Cairo, Egypt, it has slipped to considerably below that number, according to Republican and Democratic pollsters.
Asked what the White House has done to offend church members, prominent Catholics usually mention two issues.
The first is abortion, which may have been inevitable because the Democratic Party's support for abortion rights is as firmly entrenched as the Vatican's opposition.
The second area of contention is a string of remarks or actions by administration officials that strike many Catholics as bigoted and insensitive. This has caught some Catholics by surprise because of Mr. Clinton's own background and understanding of Catholic sensibilities.
Mr. Clinton, who is a Southern Baptist, has Catholics among his key advisers and often chooses Catholic colleges as venues of major speeches. (In college, his grasp of Catholic philosophy was so impressive that one Georgetown University professor, a priest, assumed that the young Bill Clinton was Catholic and invited him to become a Jesuit.)
'Abortion should be . . . rare'
Even on abortion, Mr. Clinton was credited with negotiating his way through the most contentious issue dividing Democrats and the church: "Abortion should be safe, legal -- and rare," Mr. Clinton said during the campaign.
"Bill Clinton is the most Catholic president since John F. Kennedy," gushed the National Catholic Reporter, the nation's largest Catholic newspaper.
But the trouble started immediately after he took office. Days after his inauguration, he signed executive orders allowing abortions in military hospitals and allowing foreign aid to be used for abortions. He has signed a law making it harder to picket
abortion clinics and promised that his appointments to federal judgeships would be strongly in favor of keeping abortion legal.
In so doing, Mr. Clinton kept his campaign pledges to feminist organizations. But his actions grated on the Catholic hierarchy, which now says it put too much stock in Mr. Clinton's language about the need to make abortion "rare."
All of this bubbled to the surface at the world population conference in Cairo, where the U.S. delegation, led by Vice President Al Gore and his friend Tim Wirth, the former Colorado senator, was seen by the Vatican as pushing abortion as a method to combat world overpopulation.
On Sept. 4, a blunt warning was issued by Bishop James McHugh, representing the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, on "Meet the Press." Asked about the implications of the U.S. delegation's espousal of abortion rights overseas, Bishop McHugh replied: "I think it would be a powerful incentive to American Catholics to walk away from the Democratic Party, as well as the Clinton administration."
Clinton advisers such as Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta and Tony Coelho, who are Catholic, point out that at least as many voting Catholics in the United States agree with the president as with the Vatican on the issue of abortion.
But they concede that the administration hasn't done a good job in reaching out to the church hierarchy. They also readily agree that anti-Catholic remarks offend virtually all practicing Catholics, regardless of their views on sexual questions.
This spring, in an interview with the Advocate, a gay magazine, Surgeon General M. Joycelyn Elders scoffed at religious
conservatives who, she said, believe "that the only reason for sex is procreation." Saying that sex, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is "wonderful" and "normal," Dr. Elders added that, "I feel that God meant sex for more than procreation. Sex is about pleasure as well as about responsibility."
In a letter to Mr. Clinton, Cardinal James A. Hickey of the Washington Archdiocese protested that Dr. Elders' views were a "misleading caricature" and called on the president to urge her ,, "to be more tolerant of . . . people whose religious faith and moral values collide with her own ill-considered views."
Dr. Elders was the subject of a letter to Mr. Clinton last year from Baltimore Archbishop William H. Keeler, decrying her "contemptuous" depiction of the church in an abortion rights rally in Little Rock, Ark., that took place days before the inauguration. In those remarks, Dr. Elders launched into a spirited attack on the Catholic Church for remaining "silent" about everything from slavery to the Holocaust.
"Look at who's fighting the pro-choice movement," she said. "A celibate, male-dominated church."
Dr. Elders later apologized to Archbishop Keeler in writing.
Then, three weeks ago, Faith Mitchell, a State Department official with responsibility for population policy, said in an interview about the Cairo conference, "We've done a lot to lower the volume."
Minutes later, she turned it back up.
"We suspect that [the pope's opposition] has to do with the fact that the conference is really calling for a new role for women, calling for girls' education and improving the status of women," Ms. Mitchell said.
Catholic women's organizations, noting that the church has educated more girls than any other private institution in the United States by far, were incensed. Off went more letters to the president.
"Ms. Mitchell's charge . . . is deeply offensive to millions of individual Catholics, especially Catholic women," wrote Harvard Law School Professor Mary Ann Glendon, a member of the board the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. "Regrettably, this is not the first time officials in your administration have publicly displayed bigotry toward Catholics."
To Mr. Novak, Mr. Clinton's silence is what's most troubling.
"The anti-Catholic statements keep rolling out," he says. "It boils my blood."