GOP Grapples With Gay Unions

gay marriage amendment capitol
By David Paul Kuhn, Chief Political Writer

The first marriages in U.S. history of same-sex couples have not discouraged social conservatives. The political right expects Massachusetts's legalization of gay marriage, which first occurred Monday morning, to galvanize voters to President Bush's side.

But it remains to be seen whether the first same-sex unions will attract centrist voters to the Republican ticket, as well as inspire record turnout of voters in the political right.

Gary Bauer anticipates a national outcry.

"We are assuming the images will help jumpstart the fight for the federal amendment," said Bauer, a social conservative leader who founded the organization American Values and unsuccessfully sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2000. "We think it will also spur even greater activity at the state level," he added, "which already is very active."

At least 14 states will have same-sex marriage on their ballot in November. If passed, nearly every state would ban gay unions. Massachusetts law recognizes only state residents who gain marriage licenses as valid and not merely symbolic.

Some Republican strategists expect the theologically-based belief in traditional marriage to get socially conservative voters, who otherwise may have stayed home, to the polls.

Though other conservatives question whether the Bush administration will attempt to capitalize politically on same-sex unions. In political terms, it may offer more gamble than gain.

"I think for logical reasons the Bush administration sees political blowback," said Tucker Carlson, one of two conservative co-hosts of CNN's Crossfire. "People will say 'Oh, you're intolerant,' and in order to make the case you have to explain why we need to be protected from this and nobody has explained that."

Bauer and a myriad of conservative leaders emphasize that a majority of Americans oppose same-sex marriage. "Our bottom line still is that the country overwhelming opposes this," Bauer emphasized. But polling shows that support is waning.

A Gallup Poll taken in early May shows the public backing of an amendment is decreasing while the support for same-sex marriage is increasing. The nationwide poll found that 55 percent oppose same-sex marriage (down from 65 percent in December) and 42 percent favor gay marriage (up from 31 percent in December).

But Bauer points out that the majority still oppose same-sex unions. He wants this issue at the top of the Republican platform, "because the closer you wait until the election, the more it looks like something political instead of something you care about.

"If Karl Rove calls me today," Bauer continued, "my advice to him would be to get the president to talk more about it right now and highlight the differences between he and Kerry."

Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, opposes gay marriage yet is also against a constitutional amendment that would ban it, while Mr. Bush has expressed strong support for an amendment. The current legislation to ban same-sex marriage by amending the constitution is stalled in Congress.

"If the Bush campaign were to make the case that Kerry is weird and belongs to an alternative lifestyle. He doesn't share your values. His idea of a family is not your idea of a family. I don't think there is anything ugly about saying that," Carlson said. "But I don't think they will ever say so."

The 10,000 members of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay rights group, are fighting so that Mr. Bush never does say so. The organization's executive director Patrick Guerriero said that since the constitutional amendment became a national issue last year, the organization has seen its membership and budget double.

"To the extent that Republicans and conservatives overplay the card and try to use gay and lesbian families as wedge issues, I think it can backfire among moderate Americans," said Guerriero, speaking from Massachusetts after attending the first gay marriage in America. "The issue has woken up a sleeping giant. Gay and Lesbian conservatives have now been mobilized."

According to exit polling in the 2000 election by Voters News Service, about 1 million of the 4 million voters who described themselves as gay voted for Mr. Bush. The gay voter also tends to be of a higher income and more politically active than the average voter, making their presence felt well beyond their numbers. But in a tight election, the number of gay voters alone makes them an influential voting block.

"Gay Republicans are saying, 'I am gay and conservative and this is a moment in history where if I don't speak up I am going to watch the Republican Party that I care about go in the wrong direction,'" Guerriero said. "So the cultural war that is going to happen this year is a cultural war within the Republican Party, voices on the far right and voices who believe in tolerance.

"It's going to pit people like Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Pataki, and Giuliani against people like Jerry Farewell, Gary Bauer and Pat Robertson," he added. "And where the party chooses to go will determine whether the party is on the right side of history and two, it will send a message to swing voters who would prefer not to talk about these issues, and would prefer to talk about terrorism and taxes."

Bauer thinks any loss of the support from gay Republicans will be far outweighed by the benefits in swing states, where he expects voters to rally around their opposition to gay marriage.

"Emphasizing this issue is one of the few ways that will give President Bush a chance at carrying a state like Ohio," he said.

But Carlson is skeptical of the ability of fellow conservatives to wedge this issue between Mr. Bush and Kerry. He said "the whole point" of Kerry's campaign is to "position himself as a strong, tough, manly Democrat; the kind of guy who pulls people out of the Mekong Delta."

Carlson adds that unlike former Massachusetts presidential candidate Mike Dukakis, who was portrayed as radical liberal in 1988, "It's harder to cast Kerry that way."

Bauer doesn't buy it.

"It will come up very clearly in the presidential debates," he said. "What is Kerry going to say when asked whether or not he favors a state outlawing same-sex marriage or does he want Massachusetts to outlaw it when it votes in 2 years?

"It will be in the presidential campaign," Bauer insisted, "regardless of whether politicians want it to be or not."