AS the race for the White House tightens, the three major campaigns are stepping up efforts to win over a large, pivotal group that could be decisive in this election: blue-collar, ethnic voters.
From Michigan to Ohio to New Jersey, these working middle-class voters could tip the balance in a cluster of all-important, Northern battleground states.
Twelve years ago, ethnic voters, who are largely Roman Catholic, shocked the experts by abandoning their traditional Democratic roots and supporting Republican Ronald Reagan.
These "Reagan Democrats" also backed George Bush in 1988. Hammered by the recession, millions of them now threaten to "go home" to the Democrats. Republican political strategists are pulling out all the stops to recapture this voting bloc for Mr. Bush.
A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal survey shows Bush support among ethnic Catholics dropping to only 32 percent, down from 52 percent in 1988. Bill Clinton gets 41 percent, but the big surprise is Ross Perot, who has risen to 21 percent among this group.
Recently at Bush/Quayle campaign headquarters, a dozen leading Republican Catholics urged their fellow church members to stick with the only major party that supports federal aid to parochial schools. Bush and the GOP have asked Congress to adopt a "choice" program that would use public funds to give children educational vouchers that could be spent at any school - public, private, or religious.
Catholic leaders also observe that it is Bush, not Governor Clinton, who has tried to reverse the United States Supreme Court decision which gave women the right to have an abortion.
William Bennett, former US secretary of education and a Bush supporter, puts the Republican case this way: "We think our country will be stronger, and our children will be better off, if we follow the good lights and sound directions of our best institutions, such as our Catholic schools, or other religious schools; our good churches; and those other mediating institutions."
Dr. Bennett charges that Clinton holds to "Democratic faith," which means that "if there is a job to be done, then government must do it."
Bennett says that, under Bush, education will be turned over whenever possible to private and church schools.
Not all Catholics find Bush and Bennett very convincing, however. Michael Schwartz, co-chairman of the American League of Catholic Voters, suggests this will be an easy year for Catholics to return to the Democrats.
The big problem with Republicans, says Mr. Schwartz: They have promised to start school vouchers and stop abortions, but "there hasn't been any delivery."
On the other side of this debate is the recently formed National Catholic Coalition for Bush/Quayle '92. It has compiled a list of nine policy areas in which it says Clinton is wrong and Bush is right on issues of concern to Roman Catholics.
The nine areas are:
1. Government-paid vouchers for public, private, and religious schools. Bush favors them.
Avis Lavelle, a Clinton spokeswoman, says the governor opposes vouchers, except to help children select a different public school.
"We do not favor draining away scarce resources from the public school system," she says.
Mr. Perot says he would support such vouchers on a trial basis.
2. Distribution of condoms in public schools without parental notification or consent. Bush opposes. Ms. Lavelle denies that Clinton favors distribution without parental consent. Any distribution of condoms should be part of a broad-based health effort that "emphasizes abstinence," she says.
3. A proposed federal law that would compel Catholic hospitals to perform abortions. Bush opposes. Lavelle denies that Clinton favors this.
4. Federal funding for abortions. Bush opposes. Lavelle says Clinton favors universal access to health care, and abortions would be part of that.
5. Abortion on demand at any time, for any reason, including contraception and sex selection. Bush opposes.
Lavelle says Clinton supports the right to choose an abortion only through the second trimester. She adds: "No one can morally embrace the notion of abortion as a means of contraception, and it is abhorrent as a method of sex selection."
6. Increase in tax deduction for dependents. Bush supports. Lavelle says Clinton also favors it.
7. Constitutional amendment to allow voluntary prayer in school. Bush supports.
Clinton favors a voluntary moment of silence in schools - for prayer "if they like," Lavelle says.
8. Constitutional amendment to balance the budget. Bush favors. Clinton opposes.
9. Taxes levied on church businesses and property. Both Bush and Clinton oppose.