'Culture wars' pose risks for both parties in 2004

While Republicans may gain from gay marriage decision, White House needs to avoid hot rhetoric.

By ruling in favor of gay marriage, Massachusetts' highest court has catapulted the issue to the center of the "culture wars" - that vast national battleground over homosexual rights, abortion, the Ten Commandments, and other divisive social matters.

There is no doubt that, as the 2004 election campaign gears up, the Republican Party has been handed a dream scenario: the framing of gay rights as a question of full-fledged marriage, not just civil rights or civil unions. Most polls show a two-to-one majority of the public against gay marriage. But while the risks for the Democrats - the party that most gays and lesbians support - are obvious, the Republicans also have to be careful, say political analysts and conservative activists.

"There's a danger of overplaying it in the tone with which it's dealt," says Deal Hudson, editor of the conservative Catholic magazine Crisis and a regular interlocutor with the White House on social issues. "In defending the traditional notion of marriage, we should all avoid a condemning tone or a self-righteous one."

When the Massachusetts ruling came down Tuesday, the "coalition" of social-conservative groups that maintains a regular dialogue with the White House's Office of Public Liaison kicked into action. For now, says Mr. Hudson, the White House is hearing their concerns and weighing options. But ultimately, he says, "I think this decision [on gay marriage] will spur the White House to a higher profile position on this issue."

When the US Supreme Court legalized gay sexual conduct last June, some conservatives were upset that President Bush didn't respond publicly. It took him until late July to state that he views marriage as solely a union of a man and a woman. He also asserted support for "codifying" that definition, but did not elaborate on how, saying that his legal advisers were looking into it.

NOW the White House has to figure out how it will position itself in the movement for a proposed amendment to the US Constitution that would define marriage as between a man and a woman. Polls show a slight majority favoring the idea. There is also discussion among Republicans over whether to address gay marriage in the party platform.

For many Republicans, memories of the 1992 national convention remain sharp: Pat Buchanan, who ran for the GOP nomination that year, delivered a fire-breathing speech pushing the social conservative cause, and he helped foster an image of Republicans as intolerant. Some analysts say that image hurt the first President Bush in his ill-fated reelection campaign.

The current President Bush relates to the religious right in a markedly different way from his father. The first Bush was viewed as not "one of them," while this Bush is - and so, ironically, despite complaints from some conservative activists that he doesn't do enough publicly, he is in no danger of losing their support.

That means he has the luxury of handling the gay marriage issue in a way that allows him to avoid alienating crucial suburban swing voters. "This issue has always worked best if handled in a subtle fashion," says Jim Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in South Carolina.

In the South, a Bush stronghold, he goes into the 2004 election from a position of strength, and he has to be less concerned about the fine-tuning of his message there. But in other areas - particularly swing states, such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio - he has to be especially careful, analysts say. Overall, he has to keep any discussion of social issues in proportion to the central issues of the campaign, the economy and the war on terrorism.

Earlier this month, GOP national chairman Ed Gillespie told reporters that gay marriage could be the premier "wedge issue" in the 2004 race, helping the GOP peel away crucial support from the Democrats in what could be another close election.

What Mr. Gillespie and Bush political adviser Karl Rove are not highlighting in public is their fear that social conservatives won't turn out to vote if they don't have a major issue motivating them. "There's no Bill Clinton morality issue to bring conservatives to the polls anymore," says Ed Sarpolus, a pollster based in Michigan. "Their guy is in office."

So the trick for Republicans is to keep their base voters fired up while avoiding any hot rhetoric. One way to do that, says one GOP strategist, will be for the Bush campaign to lie low and let the conservative interest groups narrow-cast the message to their supporters.

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