The Deepest Divide: God, Guns, And Gays

In the struggle for swing voters, values issues are about to take center stage

Michael G. Verich served eight terms as a Democratic member of the Ohio legislature, representing economically distressed Youngstown. That should make him a natural supporter of Democratic standard-bearer John F. Kerry, who is blitzing the Rust Belt with attacks on the Bush Administration for offshoring American jobs.

So who is Verich backing in November? George W. Bush, says Verich, a Catholic whose decision is based in large part on moral and cultural issues rather than lunch-pail economics. "Most Ohioans support an amendment to ban flag burning, but not Kerry," Verich notes. "Partial-birth abortion? Many of us believe it's immoral, and Kerry voted against a ban on that ugly method. And 65% of Ohioans believe in capital punishment." Kerry supports the death penalty only for terrorists.

Verich is just the sort of social conservative that President Bush's campaign strategists want to win over -- or discourage from voting entirely -- when they launch a cultural offensive in several crucial swing states. The goal is to drive a wedge between Kerry and fence-straddling voters by making his "Massachusetts values" more important than Bush's record on job creation and the deficit.

Who are these folks? They range from small-towners in Western Pennsylvania to independents in Central Michigan, patriotic conservatives in West Virginia, service workers in Central and Northern Florida, and even union stalwarts in Verich's blighted Mahoning Valley, a dreary landscape of shuttered factories and steel mills.

For most voters in November, a candidate's positions on "God, guns, and gays" -- the trinity of so-called values issues that Southern Republicans have perfected to hammer liberal opponents -- won't matter as much as the economy or the Iraq war. "[But] taken together, the whole cluster of cultural issues could be as important as either national security or economic security" in some battlegrounds, says GOP pollster Whit Ayres, who has been taking the electorate's temperature for the Bush campaign. In print, direct mail, and radio ads, and in attacks by campaign surrogates, Bush aides say Kerry will face a targeted cultural barrage.

Of course, launching a nationwide Kulturkampf risks alienating socially liberal independents in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin. The Kerry camp vows a vigorous counteroffensive to depict Bush as an archconservative in compassionate camouflage, itching to appoint bigots to the bench and pander to the Christian right. Sarah Bianchi, Kerry's policy director, warns that Republicans could turn off swing voters "with a radical, divisive attack." Adds Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat: "For every vote you get by bashing gays, you lose two Republican votes in the Philadelphia suburbs. [The culture wars are] a real zero-sum game for [them]."

DUKAKIS REDUX?. Still, the Bush campaign hopes to do to Kerry what Bush's father did to Massachusetts Governor Michael S. Dukakis in 1988. Then-Vice-President George H.W. Bush scored heavily on Dukakis for his membership in the American Civil Liberties Union, opposition to mandatory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in schools, and insistence that flag burning was a legitimate form of protest.

Aides to the current Bush contend that Kerry -- who served as Dukakis' lieutenant governor -- has taken even more liberal stances. "The full weight of a 20-year voting record in the Senate is going to define Kerry as being totally out of the mainstream," promises Ralph Reed, Bush's Southern regional coordinator and former head of the Christian Coalition's political arm.

In Florida, a must-win state for Bush, Reed will be highlighting Kerry's votes against two popular bills that later became law: the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as a compact limited to a man and a woman, and the 2004 Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which made it a criminal act to kill or injure a fetus in the commission of a federal crime.

Even where Bush and Kerry are close on an issue, the GOP will emphasize small differences. Their policy stances on gay marriage, for example, are virtually identical: Both oppose it. But Bush wants a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, while Kerry does not. On gun control, both candidates favor renewing the assault-weapons ban when it expires in September, both support background checks for purchases at gun shows, and neither favors mandatory handgun registration. The two hunters differ on the minor issue of whether handguns must be sold with trigger locks -- a proposal Bush opposes. Yet, says Reed, "Demo-crats know they are very vulnerable on gun control" in rural areas of Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. And it's true that Democrats have slowly come to the conclusion that Al Gore may have lost West Virginia -- and the 2000 election -- because he embraced handgun registration in a state full of avid outdoorsmen.

Facing another election likely to be decided by razor-thin margins, Kerry's best hope is that war and unemployment will overshadow "God, guns, and gays" in the minds of swing voters. But in case they don't, expect to see plenty of photos of JohnKerry dressed in hunter orange.

By Paul Magnusson in Washington

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