Thursday, February 26, 2004

Sen. John Kerry yesterday accused President Bush of playing politics by backing a constitutional amendment defining marriage, but Republicans are plotting to make the Massachusetts Democrat walk his own fine line over the next nine months.

Mr. Kerry, who is campaigning in the Midwest and trying to focus on job losses, couldn’t avoid questions yesterday about his and Mr. Bush’s positions on what has become the defining cultural issue of the 2004 presidential campaign.

On CBS’ “Early Show” program yesterday morning, Mr. Kerry said he, like Mr. Bush, opposes same-sex couples trying to “marry,” but said he also opposes trying to enshrine that in the Constitution.

“I share the same opposition, but I think it’s absolutely wrong to ask for a federal constitutional amendment, when for 200 years the states have always had the right to take care of this,” he said. “They have the ability even today. They will take care of it. And I think he’s doing this as a political wedge-driving strategy and not because it’s necessary.”

But Republicans already are trying to force Mr. Kerry to be more definitive.

Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said yesterday Mr. Kerry “has had a number of positions on this” and said he will have to prove that he really does believe marriage is between a man and a woman.

“If you do believe that, how would you enforce that, because when you vote against the Defense of Marriage Act, what that policy is, that policy is that if the Massachusetts court rules to recognize it, then every state must recognize it,” Mr. Gillespie said.

Mr. Kerry was one of 14 senators who voted against the 1996 bill, which codifies that marriage, for federal purposes, is between a man and a woman and also says no state must recognize a same-sex “marriage” from another state.

Mr. Bush and other backers of a constitutional amendment say an amendment is required because courts might overturn the 1996 law as unconstitutional.

Either way, political analysts said as long as the issue percolates, it will pose problems for Mr. Kerry.

“The gay community is increasingly pivotal to Democrats in sheer financial numbers as well as to turnout numbers — this is a base of his support he doesn’t want to alienate,” said Morris Reid, a communications strategist who served in the Commerce Department under President Clinton. “However, there is that swing voter that might be the prize for this election. [Mr. Kerry] doesn’t want to go too far that he might turn that voter off.”

Mr. Reid said he doesn’t think Mr. Kerry can straddle the line for nine months and needs to hope that the issue disappears from the front pages of newspapers.

“He has to be very precise in what he’s saying, and he has to get this out of the news cycle,” Mr. Reid said. “This is not a win-win for him. It’s almost a lose-lose for him, if it goes the wrong way.”

Mark J. Rozell, a politics professor at Catholic University, said Mr. Kerry’s success will depend on whether homosexual rights leaders demand that he go further in supporting them.

“If a part of the Democratic base says give us 100 percent or we’re walking, then I think he’s got problems,” Mr. Rozell said.

But he said it’s more likely that they are so eager to defeat Mr. Bush that they will give Mr. Kerry leeway on his public comments. He said that’s a lesson that the Christian right learned after the 1992 elections and a strategy that Democrats seem to be following this year.

With more jurisdictions following San Francisco’s lead in looking at issuing marriage certificates to same-sex couples, the issue is unlikely to go away, though.

On Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that Mr. Kerry’s wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, said she believes eventually America will accept same-sex couples.

“I think with time, and without a lot of politicization of this, we’ll get there,” she said while campaigning in San Francisco. “I think our country is basically a tolerant country.”

Her spokeswoman, Christine Anderson, said yesterday Mrs. Kerry was talking about civil unions.

“They both said they wouldn’t support the amendment,” Ms. Anderson said. “What she’s saying is essentially the same in that she supports civil unions.”

Mr. Kerry’s opposition to both same-sex “marriages” and a constitutional amendment does square with where Americans seem to be.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Election Survey released polling data Tuesday that showed 64 percent oppose same-sex “marriage” laws in their states, while only 30 percent support them. But it also found that 48 percent oppose a constitutional amendment banning states from enacting such a law, while 41 percent support one.

Mr. Rozell said the risk to Mr. Bush is that even some conservatives don’t support amending the Constitution on this issue.

But overall, he said, Mr. Bush appears to have a safer position than Mr. Kerry.

“The people who are really highly motivated on this issue are more numerous on his side than on Kerry’s. And the polls also show the vast majority of voters in the middle don’t support gay marriage; [they] simply don’t want to go that far,” he said.

Mr. Reid said Mr. Bush benefited from his announcement this week because it took Democrats’ attacks on issues such as Iraq and jobs, which have dominated coverage during the primary season, off the front pages of the newspapers.

It also allowed the president a chance to shore up part of his political base, he said.

“Him taking a position, particularly him taking this position, signaled to his core group of people ‘I’m with you,’ ” Mr. Reid said.

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