WASHINGTON -- Pope Benedict XVI arrives in the United States this week amid a full-throttle presidential campaign, with Sens. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain seeking support from the same engaged Catholics the pontiff hopes to reach.
The pope won't directly weigh in on the presidential race during stops in Washington and New York, Vatican officials and theologians say. But his homilies and remarks will almost certainly refer to topics of intense debate here, from the Iraq war to abortion and gay marriage.
"Does he have a point of view on a number of issues before the candidates? Of course he does," said Chester L. Gillis, a Georgetown University theology professor and author of The Political Papacy: John Paul II, Benedict XVI and their Influence. "Might he want to make those clear? Of course."
In states such as Pennsylvania, Indiana and North Carolina, where the next primaries are scheduled, tens of thousands of Roman Catholics will be following coverage of his trip at the same time they are considering whom to back for president.
The political effect of Pope Benedict's visit may be determined by the issues he chooses to address, said John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
The Catholic hierarchy has long opposed the Iraq war, Green said, and frequent mentions of Iraq could motivate left-leaning church members in an election year. But discussion of the church's opposition to same-sex marriage "could energize more conservative Catholics, and it could de-energize more liberal Catholics," he said.
"It's possible - if he comes and talks about the full range of issues - that the effects could cancel each other out," Green said. "It might net out to zero."
The pope has not foreshadowed his remarks at various events, from a Mass at Nationals Park on Thursday to a United Nations address Friday and a visit to Ground Zero in New York City on Sunday. Wednesday will mark just the second time a pope has visited the White House, according to the Vatican.
Greg Rohr, 42, plans to follow what Pope Benedict says closely. He'll be at the Washington ballpark, having secured tickets online for his wife and nine children. A corporate communications executive from Hagerstown, Rohr doesn't expect to hear specific political messages, but he hopes the pope's words resonate.
"Lots of times there are some far-reaching effects to what the pope says," Rohr said. "I would think that what he does say will get noted. Hopefully, there will be some good sound bites that people retain."
It's unlikely that the pope would affect Rohr's vote, however. A Republican, he backed McCain in the primary, and said that his top concern when voting is abortion. Obama and Clinton support abortion rights.
As the economy and housing woes have shot to prominence in recent months, social and moral issues that motivate religious voters have dipped in status during the current election campaign.
But that could change quickly, political analysts note. The controversy over remarks by Obama's pastor intensified discussion of religion in the presidential race, and the presidential candidates continue to make overt appeals for votes from Catholics and other religious groups.
Recognizing the importance of the Catholic vote, Clinton, Obama and McCain - all Protestants - are making direct appeals.
During a nationally televised forum on the faith of the Democratic candidates at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., last night, Clinton praised the pope as "a strong voice on behalf of what we must do to deal with poverty and deal with injustice and deal with what is truly our obligations to those who are least among us."
She also praised the "leadership" of the Vatican for becoming "the first carbon-neutral state in the world."
Obama called religion a "bulwark, a foundation when other things aren't going well," in response to questions about his recent comments that voters suffering through economic hard times "cling" to guns or religion.
"What I was referring to was in no way demeaning a faith that I myself embrace," he said.
Clinton got 63 percent of the Catholic vote in Ohio, according to an exit poll, and is hoping for a similar advantage in Pennsylvania. Nationally, a Pew Research poll conducted late last month showed that Catholics who are Democrats favored Clinton over Obama 47 percent to 38 percent. Overall, Obama had a 49 percent to 39 percent lead over Clinton in the telephone survey of 1,503 likely voters.
"What that reflects is that working-class Democrats are breaking for" Clinton, said Andrew Kohut, president of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, and that Hispanic Catholics are "stronger backers" of the New York senator.
But the Obama campaign has been trying to erode that advantage, through efforts such as encouraging volunteer Catholic supporters in Pennsylvania to call their friends and fellow church members on the senator's behalf.
A national Catholics for McCain group is working on behalf of the Arizona senator.
The Catholic vote could be critical in the general election. Al Gore took 50 percent of the Catholic vote in 2000, with George W. Bush getting 47 percent. In 2004, Bush raised his percentage to 52 percent among Catholics as he was re-elected. John F. Kerry, a practicing church member, got 47 percent after several bishops said they would deny communion to politicians such as Kerry who support abortion rights.
The decision was one of the most direct influences by church leaders in political issues in recent campaigns.
It is overly simplistic, political and religious observers say, to talk about Catholics as a monolithic voting bloc.
Catholics who are regular churchgoers have tended to vote Republican, while Latino Catholics - the fastest-growing component of the church in the United States - lean more Democratic.
"To speak of Catholics as one group, I really think is a misnomer," said David Campbell, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame and editor of A Matter of Faith: Religion in the 2004 Presidential Election. "It makes more sense to think of Catholics as divided along ideological and party lines as the rest of the population is."
Policy issues advocated by the church don't fit neatly into a single partisan box. The Vatican supports ending the war in Iraq and abolishing the death penalty, positions more in line with Democratic politicians. The church's opposition to abortion and embryonic stem cell research are regularly echoed by Republicans.
The pope is likely to "reiterate the role in a democracy of every side, of every view, being placed out there for discussion and for an up-and-down selection or rejection," said Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, head of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
While Americans sometimes prefer to keep religiously based views private, O'Brien said the pope will likely endorse a different course: "I think he'll tell us not to hide our lamp under a bushel."
The Vatican is sensitive to the timing of Pope Benedict's trip, noting that it comes during primary season, not during the fall, when heads of state generally arrive at the United Nations. That would have placed the trip even closer to the election.
"The pope is not coming to get mixed up in the internal, local political process," Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican ambassador to the United States, told the National Catholic Reporter recently, acknowledging that it was his responsibility to make sure the visit was not distorted by partisan politics.
The pope's message should not be used as a tool - or "instrumentalized," as he put it - by candidates or groups seeking a political victory for themselves or their issues, Sambi said.
"It's always a sign of weakness to instrumentalize someone else," he said.
Sun reporter Matthew Hay Brown contributed to this article.
Partisan Difference in Opinion of Pope Benedict XVI
............................ .REP DEM IND
Opinion of Benedict % % %
Favorable 62 47 50
Unfavorable 13 21 22
Don't know/can't rate 25 32 28
Pope's job in promoting relations with other faiths*
Excellent/good 46 39 32
Only fair/poor 33 38 51
Don't know 21 23 17
*Based on those who have heard "a lot" or "a little" about Pope Benedict XVI. [Source: National survey conducted March 24-29 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life POPE BENEDICT'S SCHEDULE
Arrival at Andrews Air Force Base; welcome from President Bush and the first lady
Welcome ceremony at the White House and meeting with Bush
Vespers and meeting with American bishops at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Holy Mass at the Washington Nationals Stadium
Address to leaders of Catholic institutes of higher education at Catholic University
Meeting with leaders of other religions at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center
Arrival at JFK Airport in New York
Address to the United Nations General Assembly
Address at ecumenical meeting at the Church of St. Joseph in New York
Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York
Meeting with youth and candidates for the priesthood at St. Joseph's Seminary
Visit to Ground Zero
Mass at Yankee Stadium
Departure from JFK Airport