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Gay Marriage: Playing with Political Fire

When President George W. Bush took a strong stand against gay marriage at a July 30 news conference, there seemed to be no political downside. "Marriage is between a man and a woman," Bush said. "I think we ought to codify that one way or the other." Millions of social conservatives applauded. And GOP strategists were gleeful at a chance to force Democrats to confront an uncomfortable issue.

But opposing gay marriage is the easy part. As gay rights issues bubble up in courts and state legislatures, polls reflect an ambivalence in the nation that puts both parties in a bind. That means Bush may be forced to juggle compassion and conservatism to satisfy his base without igniting a culture war that alienates the center. And Democrats and gay activists must take equal care not to overreach. "The American public wants to be tolerant on this issue, but they don't want to be pushed into feeling like they endorse the lifestyle," GOP pollster Edward Goeas says.

When the Supreme Court overturned a Texas ban on sodomy in June, polls showed a building backlash against homosexuality. But more corporations are extending benefits to partners of gay employees, and gays are an ever-growing presence in pop culture -- witness Bravo network's surprise summer hit, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

Certainly gay marriage is an issue that won't go away. Massachusetts' highest court could decide any day whether a law banning same-sex marriages amounts to discrimination. A ruling against the state would set off a wave of similar lawsuits across the country. "Gay marriage has descended on us like a freight train," says Sandy Rios, president of Concerned Women for America, a conservative coalition.

Bush strategists think they can ride that train without endangering votes in the center. So far, the President has punted on a constitutional amendment banning gay unions and remains mum on "civil unions" -- state laws giving gay couples many of the same rights as married heterosexuals. "Politically he's playing it very well," says Patrick Basham, senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute.

"He's against gay marriage, which keeps the base with him and helps with turnout, but he also emphasizes that one should be tolerant of that lifestyle, so he doesn't alienate the moderate, suburban female voter."

Vice-President Dick Cheney, who has a lesbian daughter, said of civil unions during the 2000 campaign: "We live in a free society, and freedom means freedom for everybody. I don't think there should necessarily be a federal policy in this area." But the Right is clamoring for action, and the White House has reason to pay attention. An estimated 4 million to 6 million evangelical voters stayed home on Election Day, 2000, and Bush can't risk losing them again in 2004.

Conservatives want to go beyond the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act signed by President Bill Clinton, which defined marriage for federal purposes as the union of heterosexuals. The constitutional ban that the Right wants Bush to endorse would even override any state laws that allow civil unions -- such as the one Democratic Presidential candidate Howard Dean signed as Vermont's governor. Bush "has to oppose anything that tries to counterfeit marriage," says Genevieve Wood of the conservative Family Research Council.

If Bush goes further than he has and the Democrats can't rein in radical elements, the result could be a polarizing debate. Says Winnie Stachelberg, political director of the gay and lesbian Human Rights Campaign: "If either political party attempts to make a wedge issue out of this, it will backfire." Maybe. But with passions running high and Americans so conflicted, don't count on caution. The Aug. 4 announcement by Senator Ernest F. "Fritz" Hollings (D-S.C.) that he would not seek a seventh term couldn't have been worse news for Democrats. Senator Jon Corzine (D-N.J.), the former Goldman Sachs (GS) exec spearheading efforts to reclaim the Senate, has scored some solid recruiting successes, and the Dems' fund-raising is within striking range of the GOP. So the party had figured that it had a good chance of at least maintaining the current 51-48 split in favor of the Republicans -- and might even improve.

But the South may deepen the Democrats' Senate minority in 2005. The party isn't likely to hang on to either Hollings' seat or that of Georgia Senator Zell Miller, who is also retiring. Incumbent John Breaux of Louisiana would be a shoo-in if he runs, but he has put off any announcement. And the Presidential ambitions of Senators John Edwards (N.C.) and Bob Graham (Fla.), both up for reelection, are complicating the outlook. Graham will maintain his seat if he runs, but Edwards' stalling may already have cost him or any Democrat a chance to win North Carolina.

Democrats' Southern woes are offsetting the party's gains in Illinois, where the best likely GOP candidate is taking a pass, and Alaska, where former Governor Tony Knowles is challenging Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski. Corzine will keep up the fund-raising -- hosting dinners with former Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin. But with the South slipping away, even Corzine's strenuous efforts aren't likely to keep hope alive.

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