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Stirring The Passions Of Apathetic Voters

Faced with the most polarized electorate in recent American history, both Republicans and Democrats are doing everything they can to turn out loyalists, from pounding on doors to saturating the airwaves with attack ads. But what could get the faithful's dander up -- and get them to the polls -- is a little more indirect: initiatives on state ballots that may rally the parties' bases in key battleground states. Heading the list are hot-button proposals to ban gay marriage and increase the minimum wage.

It's true that voters' top concerns are the economy and terrorism, but some of the ballot measures could be the magnets that draw a small but critical group of otherwise apathetic Americans to the polls. "Ballot initiatives have become a very important part of voter mobilization," says Susan A. MacManus, professor of political science at the University of South Florida. "Gay marriage is clearly tied to the strategy [of prodding] religious conservatives to vote. The minimum wage is tied to getting out the working poor."

"Turnout Tool"

Republican strategists take heart that bans on gay marriage are slated to be offered on ballots in the swing states of Ohio, Oregon, and Michigan this November. Democrats, meanwhile, are pleased that proposals to raise the minimum wage are on the ballot in hotly contested Florida and Nevada.

While activists pushing a minimum-wage increase to $6.15 an hour and those peddling prohibitions on gay wedlock aren't officially affiliated with either Presidential campaign, their efforts are geared not just to winning support for their agendas but also to having an impact on the main event. "The people we're contacting have a tendency to be pro-Kerry," says Gail Tuzzolo, a consultant to Nevada's AFL-CIO who is managing the minimum-wage campaign. "We're hoping to boost turnout among [the target group] by 6% to 8%."

That group is primarily the working poor, particularly women, African Americans, and Latinos. All tend to be underperformers at the polls. In securing signatures to get the initiative on the ballot, activists say they registered 5,500 new voters in Nevada and about 150,000 in Florida. While many of these voters tend to be skeptical of government, they might be persuaded by an appeal to boost their bottom line, says Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the liberal Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. "Telling people that they can vote to give themselves a raise is a powerful turnout tool."

Social conservatives think they have an even more potent lure: proposals to ban gay marriage in 12 states. The first such showdown of 2004 led to a 71%-29% victory for traditional-marriage forces in Missouri amid an unusually heavy turnout by social conservatives in an Aug. 3 election. "Democrats fear the marriage issue more than any other because it galvanizes people to action," says Robert H. Knight, director of the Culture & Family Institute, an affiliate of the conservative advocacy group Concerned Women for America.

With big issues like war and jobs crowding the agenda this year, gay marriage and the minimum wage might not rank at the top of most citizens' concerns. But in a 50-50 nation, the passions of a few in the right battleground states sometimes can trump the priorities of the many.

Why is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce messing with the Securities & Exchange Commission? In mid-August, the trade group, usually focused on bread-and-butter business issues, pushed for an extension of the deadline for comment on an SEC proposal to require hedge-fund managers to register with the agency. And on Sept. 2, the Chamber sued the SEC in a bid to overturn a rule requiring that 75% of a mutual fund's directors, including the chairman, be independent of the fund's investment adviser. The business group is angered by what one Chamber lawyer calls the SEC's penchant for "just-in-case" rulemaking. It contends many of the rules aren't needed and could crimp Corporate America's ability to raise capital. But the lawsuit is a long shot, and SEC insiders say the commission is likely to approve the hedge-fund rule before the Nov. 2 elections.

Bush campaign officials are furious with top Democrats for repeatedly misstating the President's position on embryonic stem cell research by saying that he opposes it. In reality, he favors restrictions on federal funding but not an outright ban. The issue is sensitive because Americans across party lines back such research by nearly 7-1, according to a Harris Poll released on Sept. 7. Republicans favor it 60%-18% and Dems 80%-5%. Independents are strong supporters at 83%-7%. And despite opposition from Religious Right leaders, born-again Christians back legal research 58%-21%, the poll found.

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