WASHINGTON — 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.
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.
"But," he continued, "as we profess tolerance, we shouldn't change, or have to change, our basic views on the sanctity of marriage." He also decried the actions of "activist judges," an implicit swipe at Kerry's Massachusetts.
For both candidates, the most potentially volatile wedge issue is embryonic stem-cell research. Kerry and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards, often refer to Bush's "ban" on stem-cell research, which is an oversimplification of the president's position.
In 2001, in fact, Bush became the first president to allow federal funding for this area of research, but in so doing, he limited the number of stem-cell lines available for research that draws on public funds.
As with the assault-weapons ban, he sought to thread the needle with an answer for both sides: Support research, by allowing the use of stem-cell lines from embryos that had already been destroyed, but honor his opposition to abortion by banning federal funding for research using newly destroyed embryos. Bush also favors research on adult stem cells. In July, a poll for American Demographics magazine found that if Kerry announced a major initiative to expand embryonic stem-cell research, he could potentially take away one-fifth of Bush's vote.
But Kerry has opted for caution. In the final presidential debate, which focused on domestic issues, stem cells barely came up. Ironically, the recent death of paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve, who was a vocal advocate for expanded research, makes it trickier for Kerry himself to make a big final push on the issue. He needs to avoid being seen taking advantage of that, analysts say, while letting others, such as Mr. Reeve's widow, do the talking.
If Kerry had pushed the issue harder early on, "he could have strengthened his support among suburban soccer moms, married voters, and of course voters over 65, and he didn't do it," says pollster John Zogby. "Right now, it's got to be the sort of thing he hammers on. It has crossover potential that could bring moderate Republicans to his side."
The emergence of gay marriage and stem cells as wedge issues in the 2004 election has pushed an old warhorse, abortion, off the front pages. In some ways, embryonic stem-cell research adds a new dimension to the abortion issue, as both revolve around the issue of life.
But abortion rights, too, are very much at the forefront of yet another area that is being watched closely by social-issue activists, but followed little by the public: judicial appointments. The direction of all these culture-war battlefields could hang in the balance, depending on who makes the next round of appointments.
• Bush: Approved first federal funds for embryonic stem-cell research, but confines the aid to lines that existed as of August 2001. Favors research on adult stem cells.
• Kerry: Would quadruple federal funding for stem-cell research to $100 million annually, and would allow the use of embryos left over from infertility treatments.
• Bush: Supports a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, but would leave decisions on civil unions and partnership benefits to states.
• Kerry: Opposes constitutional ban on gay marriage; supports civil unions. He'd leave decisions on marriage to the states.
• Bush: Supported extending a decade-old ban assault-weapons this year, but didn't push Congress to vote on a bill.
• Kerry: Supported the 1994 ban when it came up for renewal this year, though a final bill never came up for a vote.
• Bush: Supports parental-consent laws and ban on "partial birth" abortion. Opposes abortion except in case of rape, incest, or pregnancies that jeopardize the mother's life. Opposes use of federal funds to promote abortion.
• Kerry: Supports abortion rights and and would nominate only Supreme Court justices who share that view. Opposes parental-consent laws and bans on "partial birth" abortion; would expand availability of the "morning after" pill.
Source: Associated Press, candidate statements
Sept. 28 Energy and environment
Oct. 1 Healthcare
Oct. 6 Jobs and economy
Oct. 12 Supreme Court
Oct. 18 Social Security
Oct. 20 Foreign policy
Oct. 26 Immigration
Links to these stories are on csmonitor.com/decision2004