WASHINGTON—When President Bush beat John Kerry in 2004, Republicans said a ballot initiative in Ohio to ban gay marriage sealed the election, drawing legions of conservatives to the polls.
Bush and Republican senators now will seek another dose of conservative magic to energize their party's base. Call it nostalgia—or election-year jitters.
In his Saturday radio address, the president urged support for a national ban on gay marriage, saying that the bond between a wife and a husband "promotes the welfare of children and the stability of society."
On Monday Bush plans to meet at the White House with opponents of gay marriage, just as the Senate begins a full-blown debate on a constitutional amendment to limit marriage to the union of a man and a woman. A Senate vote is expected Wednesday.
Next, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., wants votes on two perennial conservative causes: repealing the estate tax and giving Congress the constitutional authority to ban flag burning.
None of the measures is expected to pass, though the estate tax debate could yield a compromise that applies the tax only to the largest inheritances.
The detour into socially conservative causes comes as Congress is locked in a stalemate over immigration policy, paralyzed over ethics legislation and flummoxed by the Iraq war.
Despite the futility of the gay-marriage and flag-burning votes, some Republican strategists said they were just the jolt that conservative voters—angry over illegal immigration, profligate spending and congressional scandal—needed to overcome their growing antipathy toward the party.
"Every time you have that conversation it reminds (voters) of what team they're on," said Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform and a prominent voice in conservative circles.
Some conservatives, such as political direct-mail guru Richard Viguerie, are skeptical about Republican motives. The upcoming votes, he said, aren't enough to compensate for what he considers a pattern of wayward behavior.
"No conservative is going to take this as a change of heart or as a newfound belief in conservative principles," he said.
Other Republican operatives say the strategy is a waste of time when most Republican voters are angry or divided over the Iraq war, high gas prices and immigration.
"Those are the issues that are dominating people's dinner-table talk," said Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign. Reed dismissed Frist's plan, saying: "If you're a gay who likes to burn flags, it's going to be a long year."
But in his Saturday address, Bush described the proposed amendment as a means to rein in judges who have overturned gay marriage bans in Washington, California, Maryland, New York and Nebraska.
"This national question requires a national solution, and on an issue of such profound importance, that solution should come from the people, not the courts," Bush said.
It's an awkward time for Republicans to pick up the gay marriage cause. Vice President Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter, Mary, who's traveling across the country promoting her political memoir, has criticized the amendment as "fundamentally wrong."
First lady Laura Bush, in a recent interview with Fox News, cautioned against politicizing the issue.
"I don't think it should be used as a campaign tool, obviously," she said. "It requires a lot of sensitivity to just talk about the issue—a lot of sensitivity."
That quote probably will get plenty of use from Democratic senators.
How potent an issue gay marriage is remains an open question.
Political insiders concede that having the 2004 referendum on the ballot in Ohio may, at best, have energized social conservative voters or, at least, neutralized any hostility religious voters may have felt toward Bush over the economy or the war.
Voters in seven states will decide gay-marriage initiatives this year. Alabama has it on the ballot Tuesday; the rest will be decided Nov. 6. Two other states want ballot initiatives as well.
But a Senate vote to change the U.S. Constitution is much more removed from voters. Even if the House and Senate managed to get the necessary two-thirds majority, 38 states would have to ratify the change.
"I don't think they're going to have nearly the impact in `06 that they had in `04," said Charlie Cook, a nonpartisan handicapper who publishes the Cook Political Report. "The Iraq war is in a different place and public attention is in a different place. There's not quite the vacuum you saw in 2004."
John Green, an expert on religious voters at the University of Akron in Ohio, said the party's appeal to social conservatives might work, but would satisfy only one slice of potential Republican voters.
"It's not going to bring back swing voters who are angry over Iraq, or fiscal conservatives," he said.
What's more, a national debate over gay marriage could backfire. It might energize liberal Democrats and alienate Republican moderates. A study by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning research center, observed that public opinion has become more accepting of homosexuality. Polls show that while a majority doesn't support gay marriage, the country is evenly divided over a constitutional ban.
The issue's history is complicated. A constitutional ban has caused rifts before even among conservatives.
Some, such as Sens. John McCain of Arizona and John Sununu of New Hampshire, have opposed an amendment, saying marriage is best governed by states.
For McCain and Frist, the issue has presidential implications.
Both are considered likely contenders for the Republican nomination in 2008. McCain has been reaching out to social conservatives after many of them worked to defeat him in 2000. But his stance on gay marriage and support for a path to citizenship by undocumented immigrants still could keep conservatives away. For Frist, whom many conservatives view with ambivalence, calling for such a vote at least could distinguish him from McCain.
The issue could be complicated for Democrats too. Polls show that many African-American voters don't support gay marriage.
And gay-rights advocates say the amendment could be only one sentence—"Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman"—which may appear less threatening to lawmakers who support gay unions but don't want to alienate voters on the question.
"They're hearing an awful lot from the other side, and we've got to make sure that they hear just as much from us," said Joe Solomonese, the president of the Human Rights Campaign. "We're being pretty aggressive to make sure we're reaching out to everybody."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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