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Parties Uneasy Over Politics of Gay Marriage

Times Staff Writer

Democrat or Republican, few in either political camp seemed pleased or comfortable Wednesday with the Massachusetts court decision upholding gay marriage.

The issue is likely to help mobilize social conservatives -- the most loyal of Republican voters -- who see Tuesday’s court decision as a “wake-up call,” as one advocacy group put it.

But President Bush doesn’t much care for “moralistic debates,” said one White House advisor, who described Bush as reluctant to exploit the gay marriage issue in his reelection bid.

At the same time, Democrats -- who tend to be more supportive of gay rights -- have their own reasons for disquiet over the decision guaranteeing the right of marriage to Massachusetts’ gay and lesbian couples.

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A broad debate over gay marriage could “make it harder” for the party’s candidates in 2004 by prying away voters who might otherwise support their stance on economic and other issues, said a Democratic strategist involved in congressional races across the country.

Overall, the issue is probably “a net benefit for the Republicans, if they play it correctly,” said James Guth, a political scientist at South Carolina’s Furman University. But, he said, “it works best for the Republicans if they sort of let the issue play itself, rather than harp on it too much.”

Political strategists on both sides agree that if the GOP pushes its opposition to gay marriage too hard, the party risks seeming harsh and intolerant. That, in turn, could put off the moderate “swing” voters that both parties covet.

“They risk a backlash from average Americans who may have fuzzy views on this whole issue and don’t feel one party should try to exploit it at the expense of the other,” said Paul Maslin, a pollster for Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean. The former Vermont governor signed the nation’s first gay civil union bill into law in 2000.

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In short, the politics of gay marriage seem every bit as complex as public attitudes on the larger question of gay rights -- a subject the candidates can no longer easily ignore.

A new Los Angeles Times poll underlines the public’s mixed feelings. The public was closely divided on civil unions, which would afford gay couples legal protection in areas such as inheritance, taxes and hospital visits; 40% opposed the concept, 36% supported it.

However, government-sanctioned gay marriage was opposed, 55% to 31%, in the poll, which was conducted from Nov. 15 through 18.

The gay marriage issue was pushed to the political fore by the Massachusetts high court decision, which called on state lawmakers to devise a plan within six months allowing same-sex marriages.

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Conservative activists were quick to seize on the ruling, vowing to make gay marriage a focal point of the 2004 campaign.

“We will work strenuously to defeat any presidential candidate or any member of the House or Senate of either party that tries to play games on this issue or refuses to take the necessary steps, including a constitutional amendment, to assure that marriage is limited to unions between a man and a woman,” said Gary Bauer, who briefly ran against Bush in the 2000 Republican presidential primaries. Bauer now heads American Values, a national organization promoting conservative Christian causes.

Guth, an expert on the religious right, said the ruling had energized social conservatives who were largely resigned to greater acceptance of gays and lesbians on several fronts, such as in employment and civil rights. “What the court did in effect was bring back into play the one issue” -- gay marriage -- “where the public is clearly not willing to go at this point.”

Among Democrats, none of the party’s top-tier presidential candidates support gay marriage.

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The party’s delicate position is reflected by the contenders’ contorted reaction to the ruling. “I have long believed that gay men and lesbians should be assured equal protection and the same benefits -- from health to survivors benefits to hospital visitation -- that all families deserve,” Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts said. He, like several of his rivals, then restated his opposition to gay marriage.

Despite that opposition, however, none of the Democratic presidential contenders have embraced the proposed constitutional amendment barring gay marriage -- a position that could be highly damaging in a Democratic primary. “It’s a difficult issue,” said a strategist for one presidential hopeful, who declined to be named.

Collectively, the field is more supportive of gay rights than any group of White House contestants in history. Several have endorsed an exhaustive list of measures to bar discrimination against gays and lesbians, including allowing adoption rights and permitting gays to serve openly in the military.

Even before the court decision, many Republicans anticipated -- and Democrats feared -- those positions being used against the party’s eventual nominee.

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Still, the political calculation may be only slightly less vexing for Republicans, foremost among them the president.

While Bush has taken great care to avoid alienating the party’s base -- a misstep that helped cost his father reelection -- he has also carefully cultivated a reputation as a different sort of Republican, a “compassionate conservative” who shuns the more incendiary rhetoric and exclusionary practices of his predecessors. Running for president in 2000, Bush met with a hand-picked group of gay Republicans; although it came only after his nomination was clinched, the session was a breakthrough in GOP politics.

Bush issued a statement after Tuesday’s court decision calling marriage “a sacred institution between man and woman.” But he stopped short of endorsing the Republican-sponsored constitutional amendment barring gay marriage.

One White House political advisor said Bush was eager to avoid a debate on the issue, for both political and personal reasons. “People don’t want to have that debate, except those on the far extreme of both parties,” the advisor said. “He needs to lead by example, which is to focus on the issues of world affairs and domestic affairs that affect the lives of the vast majority of the American people ... That’s where his head is at.”

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While gay marriage may be topical at the moment, many analysts suspect the issue will fade as larger matters -- namely, peace and prosperity -- reassert their traditional place at the center of the presidential race.

“This looks to be a ‘big issue’ election,” said Charlie Cook, a campaign handicapper and nonpartisan publisher of the Cook Political Report. “If you’ve got Americans getting killed and wounded in Iraq, or people are worried about unemployment or underemployment, an issue like gay marriage seems kind of frivolous and insignificant by comparison.”


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