When it comes to homosexuality, the Republican Party is tied up in knots. Should the party condemn it, as part of its strong commitment to family values? Or passively accept it, in the spirit of tolerance and a "big tent" constituency?
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) brought the conflict into the open once again with remarks in a television interview Monday equating homosexuality with alcoholism, sexual addiction and kleptomania.
After characterizing gays as sinful, Lott told conservative activist Armstrong Williams: "You still love that person and you should not try to mistreat them or treat them as outcasts. You should try to show them a way to deal with that."
The statement prompted cries of protest from gay rights organizations and hand wringing from some moderate Republicans eager to expand the party, not narrow it.
"It's a very tough issue," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "We have a large party, a majority party. We have lots of facets to our party and lots of interests. The Log Cabin Republicans [a gay and lesbian organization] should be part of our party. The Christian Right should be part of our party."
Bringing such disparate elements together, however, has proved an immense challenge for GOP leaders.
"A good number of the leaders are pandering to a small, extremist minority of the party," said Kevin Ivers, spokesman for the Log Cabin Republicans.
One strategist's advice to Lott and other party brass: Avoid the topic altogether.
"I don't think any politician should talk about this stuff," said the strategist, who did not want to be identified. "You're not going to win, no matter what. It exposes the fissures in our base. There is a huge libertarian strain in our base, then there's the Southern Baptist wing that really cares about this."
Of course, many do not take such advice. In a recent fund-raising letter, Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.) said: "As a father of four children, I am not about to allow liberal bureaucrats or irresponsible judges, who believe in everything from abortion to homosexuality to [hand] out condoms to 10-year-olds, to usurp my God-given rights."
The same intraparty schism that Lott exposed erupted in Texas last week when state GOP leaders barred the Log Cabin Republicans from the state convention in Fort Worth. Robert Black, a party spokesman, likened the group to the Ku Klux Klan and said: "We don't allow pedophiles, transvestites or cross-dressers, either."
That prompted Texas Gov. George W. Bush to call for a truce.
Bush said that, although he differs from the group on issues such as gay marriage, he "believes all individuals deserve to be treated with dignity and respect" and "does not condone name-calling."
He added that "all Republicans [ought] to focus on our common goal of electing Republicans based on our conservative philosophy."
Many Republican lawmakers agree with Bush's approach.
"The Republican Party is the party of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan and it must remain the party of the big tent, where all Americans who share our core Republican principles, including gay and lesbian Americans, stand shoulder to shoulder equally with everyone else," said Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-San Diego).
Bob Dole, the former Kansas senator and Lott's predecessor as majority leader, found himself in the middle of a similar fix during his 1996 presidential bid when he returned a $1,000 contribution from the Log Cabin Republicans. Returning the check drew praise from conservatives but, in an attempt to placate party moderates, Dole later said turning down the money was a mistake.
Homosexuality is also an issue that Republicans are wrestling with in deciding whether to confirm James Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg. Hormel is gay.
The White House, which has chided senators for holding up the nomination, said Lott showed that he is among those who are "so backward in their thinking."
That prompted a sharp reply from Lott spokeswoman Susan Irby, who said that what White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry "considers to be backward are the views and values of the great majority of Americans, who understand and are concerned about the grave social and ethical questions our country faces."
On the sidelines, Republicans of all stripes seemed eager to change the subject.
Assistant Majority Leader Don Nickles (R-Okla.) said Tuesday that Lott was "biblically correct" in his description of gays. But Nickles also clearly did not relish discussing the topic. "It's a sensitive area," he said.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) checked with his Bible before commenting to reporters on the topic and was ready with specific passages criticizing homosexuality.
"My faith is based in the teachings of the Lord God Almighty, as found in the Holy Bible, and I do not quarrel with the Bible on this subject," said Armey, who stirred up a firestorm of his own in 1995 when he referred to Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who is gay, as "Barney Fag."
Times staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this story.