Sunday, November 30, 2003

Same-sex “marriage” has become a vexing presidential campaign issue for Democratic candidates, who are torn between their homosexual constituency and a public that overwhelmingly opposes the idea.

Although leading Democratic candidates agree with President Bush’s opposition to homosexual “marriage,” they also support a half-measure that the president does not — civil unions. And unlike Mr. Bush, they have refused to criticize the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court for recently ordering the state legislature to legalize homosexual “marriage.”

“This is a huge wedge issue,” said Democratic consultant Michael Goldman of Massachusetts.

“It’s a major, fundamental difference” between the way Mr. Bush sees the world and the way the Democratic candidates see the world, he said.

“You’ve got one guy who looks like he’s got a strong position and who’s willing to stand up and say it,” he added. “And then you’ve got the Democrats, who look like they’re looking for an out, because they don’t want to insult their constituency.”

Republican strategist Charles Manning of Massachusetts agreed.

“The Democrats can’t decide whether our state first and then the country should move toward gay marriage, because they’re trying to play both sides against the middle,” he said. “The Republicans are very clear in their position that they don’t accept gay marriage.”

According to a poll this month by Fox News Channel and Opinion Dynamics, homosexual “marriage” is opposed by 66 percent of Americans and supported by 25 percent. Respondents also opposed civil unions by a margin of 48 percent to 41 percent.

The gap was narrower in a recent Pew Research Center poll, which showed Americans opposing homosexual “marriage” by a margin of 53 percent to 38 percent. Only 24 percent of Republicans favored the practice, compared with 45 percent of Democrats.

“In terms of issues that raise voter turnout and intensity, this obviously is a real bonus for Republicans because it strengthens their base,” Mr. Manning said.

Bush campaign officials said they think the president would have won the popular vote in 2000 if Christian conservatives had turned out in larger numbers. Such turnout might be boosted next year by the homosexual “marriage” case and a June Supreme Court decision overturning a Texas anti-sodomy law.

“Nothing brings out the Christian conservative base more than having some good ‘red-meat’ moral issues on the docket,” Mr. Manning said.

“On the other side, it kind of splinters the Democratic base,” he added. “To have their nominee wishy-washy on it and not ready to take a firm stand, I think will probably turn off the gay-activist voters who have been such an important part of the Democratic coalition over the last several years.”

Mr. Goldman pointed out that although Massachusetts might be moving toward homosexual “marriage,” Southern states such as Mississippi are not.

“The Republicans realize that these culture-war issues cut deeper in some parts of the country,” he said. “Republicans are saying: ‘This is why a Democrat cannot be president of the United States — because he’s not like you and me. He doesn’t share your values.’”

Still, Mr. Goldman said there is a way for Democrats to work the issue to their advantage.

“The Democrats ought to be saying: ‘A civil union is about two things, which I favor — monogamy and accountability,’” he said.

Instead, the Democrats have been deeply conflicted by their support for civil unions and opposition to homosexual “marriage.” The only candidates to strongly advocate homosexual “marriage” are those considered least likely to win the Democratic nomination — former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio.

By contrast, contenders such as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Sens. John Kerry and Joe Lieberman, and Wesley Clark oppose gay “marriage” while endorsing civil unions. That has led to some careful parsing of the issue in recent Democratic debates.

In Monday’s debate, for example, Mr. Clark was careful not to advocate same-sex “marriage,” but seemed to favor civil unions.

“People who want same-sex relationships should have exactly the same rights as people who are in conventional marriages,” said the retired Army general. “I’m talking about joint domicile, rights of survivorship, insurance coverage and all those rights. I think that’s essential in America today.”

Mr. Dean, widely considered the Democratic front-runner, signed civil unions legislation in Vermont when he was governor. When the Massachusetts court ruling was announced this month, Mr. Dean cautioned that it should not be used to divide Americans.

“Instead, this decision should be viewed as an opportunity to affirm what binds us together — a fundamental belief in the equality of human beings, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation,” Mr. Dean said in a statement. “One way or another, the state should afford same-sex couples equal treatment under the law in areas such as health insurance, hospital visitation and inheritance rights.”

Such benefits were not mentioned by Mr. Bush when he issued his own blunt statement the same day.

“Marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman,” the president said. “Today’s decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court violates this important principle. I will work with congressional leaders and others to do what is legally necessary to defend the sanctity of marriage.”

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