American cardinals at the conclave to elect the next pope are having unprecedented influence, stirring things up as they raise tough issues confronting the Roman Catholic Church and perhaps even paving the way for an American pope now or down the road, church experts said.

"The American cardinals have already had a presence and an influence beyond anything in previous conclaves. This is their breakthrough moment in a way," said David Gibson, author of "The Rule of Benedict" about Pope Benedict XVI.

"They have shaken things up, and irritated some people, especially in the Roman curia, but also pleased others," Gibson said.

The Rev. Matthew Malone, editor of the Manhattan-based Jesuit weekly "America," said the enhanced U.S. role is setting the stage for the possibility, even if remote, of one of their own appearing on the balcony at St. Peter's Basilica after the white smoke appears.

"With his unprecedented act" of resigning, "Pope Benedict has opened up a space in which the unthinkable has become thinkable: People are talking about the possibility of a North American pope," said Malone, who is in Rome for the vote.

Eleven of the 115 cardinals are from the United States. Two-thirds -- or 77 -- must vote for the winner. Tuesday, after the first vote, black smoke came out of the Sistine Chapel's chimney, indicating no pope yet.

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Some of the talk of an American pope has involved Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. But even more is focused on Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, a bearded Franciscan priest whose humility, smile, and plain brown Capuchin habit have captivated the faithful in Rome.

O'Malley "has really kind of captured imaginations here in Italy," said Dennis Coday, editor of the weekly newspaper National Catholic Reporter. "He has created a lot of buzz."

The paper's Vatican expert, John Allen, wrote that "ordinary people just can't stop talking about" O'Malley, who has "stirred a sort of Roman love affair."

Though many still think an American pope remains unlikely, the lack of a clear front-runner is creating a sense of unpredictability. Miller Place resident Michael D'Antonio, a former Newsday reporter and author of "Mortal Sins," an upcoming book on the church sex abuse scandal, said, "This is one of the few conclaves probably in centuries that could produce a genuine surprise."

The Americans have been making their mark in Rome in several ways. Inside last week's pre-conclave talks, they were among those pushing the church to address problems, including Vatican mismanagement and scandals, and the sex abuse crisis, analysts said.

They have been "raising tough questions, and signaling that they don't want to just raise questions, but they want answers," Gibson said.

Malone said he believes much of the debate is between those cardinals who want to reform the Vatican and those who want to maintain the status quo.

He said the reformists might favor Americans because they have a reputation for managerial efficiency and at least 10 years of experience in managing reform after the sex abuse scandal.

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"Some people believe that what the church really needs right now, as it faces multiple scandals on several fronts, is the reforming, simple spirit of St. Francis," as represented by O'Malley, he said.

The Americans also have gained notice by showing a transparency unusual for church hierarchy, analysts said. Last week, two U.S. cardinals held daily news conferences. Those were halted last Wednesday, apparently after other cardinals complained, Coday said.

Not everyone thinks the Americans are that influential. Hofstra religion professor Phyllis Zagano said she thought their role was being magnified by the international media, which the cardinals are using adeptly. She thinks O'Malley is a long shot for pope.

Gibson said the extent of the Americans' influence will be clear the day the new pope steps onto the balcony. If it is someone seen in line with the Americans' stance, "their stock will rise further. If not, time to sell that stock."