Monday, February 23, 2004

President Bush, who has hesitated to support a constitutional amendment against homosexual “marriage,” is tangled in an issue that could cost him re-election, political analysts and prominent Republicans say.

Since San Francisco began granting licenses for same-sex couples to “marry” two weeks ago, senior Bush officials quietly have told reporters that the president would weigh in shortly. They predicted his endorsement of the constitutional amendment that is before both chambers on Capitol Hill.

But Mr. Bush has yet to do so. When given the chance to comment last week on San Francisco officials who are flouting the voter-approved California law defining marriage as a male-female union, the president said only that he is “troubled” and “watching very carefully.”

For pollster John Zogby, Mr. Bush’s caution is understandable.

“The president and his people have got to understand that this election is going to be really close,” Mr. Zogby said. “They’ve got to make sure that they’re not creating a situation that may turn around and hurt them in the end.”

But for others, especially conservative leaders, the delay in supporting a constitutional ban — which White House aides say is expected “sooner rather than later” — is inexplicable.

“Politically, it’s foolhardy,” said Bay Buchanan, a former Reagan administration official and head of American Cause, the think tank started by her brother, one-time Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan.

“This hesitancy makes the true believers be concerned that he’s not with us,” she said. “It’s a pretty obvious issue for us. We not only are anxious for him to support it, but we are very anxious for him to take a leadership role. The American people are with him on this issue.”

Gary Bauer, president of American Values and a Republican presidential hopeful in 2000, argues that opposing the judge-led drive to homosexual “marriage” is a political winner for Mr. Bush.

“There is nothing else on the president’s agenda that comes close to the polling numbers on this, not his economic plan, not Iraq, not government spending, nothing,” Mr. Bauer said.

Recent surveys bear that out. About 62 percent of registered voters oppose homosexual “marriage,” compared with 30 percent who support it, according to a Time-CNN poll released Feb. 5.

But there are dangers in following the polls.

Mr. Bush, who reached out to homosexuals in the 2000 campaign, won 25 percent of homosexual voters in that election. He faces the prospect of alienating not only homosexual Republicans, but members of the party who consider themselves fellow “compassionate conservatives.”

Mark Mead, political director for the Log Cabin Republicans, a homosexual group, said if the party wades into social issues during a presidential campaign, it risks repeating the loss by the president’s father in his 1992 re-election bid.

“Our fear is a repeat of 1992. The last time the Republican Party waged a culture war, we handed the White House to Bill and Hillary Clinton for eight years,” Mr. Mead said. “I think Pat Buchanan declared a culture war and Middle America was turned off, and it made George H.W. Bush seem intolerant and strident.

“And as someone who worked for him, I know he is neither,” said Mr. Mead, who worked for the Republican National Committee during the first President Bush’s re-election campaign.

Mr. Zogby said marginalizing even a small contingent of the party could decide this year’s race.

There is a political value to “keeping the tent open a little bit to the Log Cabin folks, and that’s got to be a consideration,” the pollster said, referring to the homosexual Republican group.

“This election can turn on hundreds or a few thousand voters, so why alienate a potentially important constituency that actually could generate a million votes the other way and, in the final analysis, not necessarily help you with evangelicals?”

Still, some conservatives say Mr. Bush would be foolish to alienate evangelicals, a large percentage of whom are avowed Republicans.

Senior Bush political adviser Karl Rove said after the 2000 election that about 4 million evangelicals stayed away from the polls, but Family Research Council President Tony Perkins says most of them have become Bush fans.

“Many have been pleasantly surprised by him in his first few years, and he has been much more appealing to evangelicals,” Mr. Perkins said. “But we are now faced with a tremendous cultural crisis here, and what he may have done three years ago is going to be eclipsed by how he responds to this.”

Mr. Perkins said Americans steadily have moved toward opposition to homosexual “marriage” as the issue has spread from a Massachusetts court decision to acts of civil disobedience by San Francisco authorities and officials and judges in at least four states.

“People are unsettled by that,” he said, “and I think it goes beyond what you would describe as traditional social conservatives and reaches in even to the soccer moms, who are tolerant but not to the point where they want a small minority to redefine marriage and family for everyone else.”

The issue also is dangerous for Democrats, especially Sen. John Kerry, the party’s presidential front-runner.

Mr. Kerry hails from Massachusetts, where the state Supreme Judicial Court ordered the legislature to permit homosexual “marriage.” Embracing a notion opposed by nearly two-thirds of Americans puts the Democratic Party on the wrong side politically.

Mr. Kerry has waffled on the issue. He opposes homosexual “marriage” but supports civil unions, although that option was specifically taken off the table by the Massachusetts court, which said only “marriage” would satisfy equal-protection guarantees.

Mr. Kerry’s stance against homosexual “marriage” also doesn’t mesh with his 1996 vote in the Senate against the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as being between a man and a woman.

In many ways, Mr. Zogby said, both Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry wish the issue would go away.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the back channels, they weren’t meeting under a bridge somewhere and saying, ‘Let’s just get this one out of here.’ ”

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