Social issues stir passions
They are the hot-button topics that many Americans avoid in polite company - stem-cell research, gay marriage, abortion, and gun rights. And they are lurking on the edge of the 2004 presidential campaign, their small but vocal constituencies poised to make the difference in a down-to-the-wire election.Skip to next paragraph
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The news of Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist's cancer surgery last weekend served as a reminder that the next president may well get to appoint one or more new justices - and that the makeup of the court is critical to some of these tough issues.
By election eve, though, neither President George Bush nor Sen. John Kerry had played any of the issues to their fullest, lest he be perceived as intolerant in areas where values collide, at times pitting the sacred against the secular. Still, their differences - some sharp, some subtle - are clear.
"In a close election, you win or lose at the margins," says John Kenneth White, a political scientist at Catholic University. "What makes these issues important is if they become part of the larger narrative."
For President Bush, one wedge issue that works easily to his advantage is gun rights; his "narrative" is that Democrats don't understand gun-owners' values or respect their rights. Kerry's recent goose-hunting excursion was just for show, Republicans say.
In the 2000 race, Democratic nominee Al Gore's advocacy for gun control may well have cost him several crucial states, including New Hampshire, West Virginia, and Tennessee. Bush's nominal support for renewal of the popular assault-weapons ban - and lack of pressure on Congress to consider legislation - was seen as a successful effort to play the issue both ways.
For Senator Kerry, the most advantageous social issue is embryonic stem-cell research, with a large majority of voters supporting his position favoring expanded federal funding and the creation of new cell lines, through the use of leftover embryos from infertility treatment. Advocates believe such research holds promise in the search for cures of some diseases.
Kerry's story line on stem cells goes beyond the fact that the president disagrees with most Americans on the issue; the senator also uses it to exemplify what he calls Bush's stubbornness - and a willingness to put ideology and religious belief ahead of human progress.
"President Bush just doesn't get it," Kerry said in an Oct. 4 speech on stem cells. "Faced with the facts, he turns away. Time and time again, he's proven that he's stubborn, he's out of touch, he's unwilling to change, he's unwilling to change course."
It was a line of attack that Kerry has used against the president on a variety of issues, including the Iraq war and the economy.
With less than a week until the election, there is anecdotal evidence that these culture-war issues are giving some Americans pause, if not swaying votes. Take gay marriage. Recent polls of African-American voters have shown Bush receiving up to 18 percent support among that highly Democratic constituency - double what he got in the 2000 election. Though two-thirds of blacks view Bush unfavorably overall, about half oppose gay marriage and civil unions.
Independent pollster John Zogby points to a recent focus group in St. Paul, Minn., in which two black men mentioned gay marriage over and over as their reason for hesitating to support Kerry.
It's not even that they believed Kerry supports gay marriage, which he does not. Kerry's problem, says Mr. Zogby, is that he's from Massachusetts, famous for having legalized gay marriage last year, and that his opposition to gay marriage is less than absolute: He opposes a constitutional amendment banning such marriages, which Bush supports. Kerry also refused to support the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, signed by President Clinton, which denies federal recognition of same-sex marriages and allows states to refuse to recognize such marriages.
Another way this issue could help Bush on Nov. 2 is through ballot measures in 11 states - including such battlegrounds as Ohio and Michigan - to ban same-sex marriage. These initiatives will boost social-conservative turnout in those states.
At every opportunity, Bush restates his opposition to gay marriage, a position strongly supported in the polls. In the third debate, when asked whether he believed homosexuality was a choice, he said he didn't know and expressed tolerance for the way people live.