Same-sex marriage may be the sleeper issue of the 2004 presidential race.
While neither George Bush nor John Kerry talks much about it, gay marriage may now rival gun control or abortion in how voters perceive - and are likely to vote for - the candidates. And in a very tight race this wedge issue could make the difference in key states where measures banning gay marriage are on the ballot; there are 11 such states, including such battleground states as Michigan, Ohio, and Oregon.
"It's a hot-button issue for people right now, it definitely is," says Craig Rimmerman, professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y.
While superficially the presidential candidates hold similar positions - they're both against legalizing same-sex marriage - they're far apart in how they view it. And their positions on other matters of gay rights are very different as well.
This has generated fierce campaigning by partisans on either side: Gay-rights groups bashing Bush on his stand on such issues as civil unions for gay couples, child adoption, hate crimes laws, and "don't ask, don't tell" in the military; conservative groups like the Christian Coalition lauding the GOP platform on the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment to the US Constitution.
Former presidential candidate Gary Bauer has just launched a $500,000 TV ad campaign in Michigan and Pennsylvania declaring that Kerry is "too liberal for America."
"We believe it is important for the American people to know which candidates will defend traditional marriage," says Mr. Bauer, president of Americans United to Preserve Marriage, a political action committee not bound by campaign-finance laws.
Ticking off a dozen issues from domestic partnerships to AIDS prevention, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, on the other hand, calls the Bush administration "the most antigay in the history of the gay-rights movement."
"This administration has attacked equal rights for gay people and gay families on all fronts, including consciously using gay marriage as a wedge issue to divide the nation, win reelection, and fuel antigay organizing," says Matt Foreman, the group's executive director.
Indeed, the goal for both campaigns is to rouse their respective bases as well as to scoop up those undecideds who may feel strongly about the issue. But with Americans opposed to legalizing same-sex marriage by 2 to 1 (according to many opinion polls) and the ban initiatives likely to pass in the 11 states where they're on the ballot, the Bush campaign appears to have the advantage.
"While gay marriage has a greater overall impact on voters than either abortion or gun control ... [f]or the most part, gay marriage is a make-or-break voting issue only to the opponents of that idea," the Pew Research Center reported earlier this year. "Moreover, even among gay marriage opponents, the issue has a disproportionate impact on some groups notably conservative Republicans, evangelical Christians, and voters age 65 and older."
Which sounds exactly like the folks the Bush campaign is counting on. It doesn't help Kerry that his position is more nuanced than Bush's. (He supports civil unions and child adoption by gay couples, for example.) Nor that he comes from Massachusetts, where the state supreme court - those "activist judges" whom conservatives rail against - ruled last year that there was no "constitutionally adequate reason" to prevent same-sex couples from marrying.
Still, this presidential election - as close as it is - also is expected to draw unprecedented numbers of historically apathetic young voters, according to recent surveys. And they tend to be far more accepting of gay unions - civil or marriage - than their elders.
"It's not nearly as contentious a concern for them as it is for people of the four candidates' generation," says Dr. Rimmerman, author of "From Identity to Politics: The Lesbian and Gay Movements in the United States."
And even within the Bush administration, there are differences of opinion.
Vice president Dick Cheney has a gay daughter, and he said in this week's debate with Sen. John Edwards that "people ought to be free to choose any arrangement they want." Leaving it up to the states "would be my preference," Mr. Cheney said, but he added that Bush "sets policy for this administration and I support the president."
Gay-rights advocates are working hard and spending considerable sums to defeat the ballot measures that would ban same-sex marriage. It's an uphill battle. Those that have passed so far have done so by large margins. (Missouri and Louisiana approved such measures this year; Alaska, Hawaii, Nebraska, and Nevada already ban gay marriage.) Although several ballot measures are being legally challenged - a Louisiana judge this week declared that state's measure illegal - polls show they enjoy wide support.
But a recent surge in voter registration gives political experts pause.
"It is not inconceivable that you could have increased numbers of highly religious people who are very offended by a whole raft of secular developments, among them same-sex marriage, who are highly ticked off and who will not only register but who will vote," says William Lunch, professor of political science at Oregon State University in Corvallis. "If that's the case, the Republicans are going to have a field day."
"If, however, what we are getting is not a conservative backlash but an increase in younger voters who have been offended by the Bush administration either on the basis of the war in Iraq or on the basis of its moralistic, religiously motivated kinds of positions, then the Democrats are going to have a field day."