NORFOLK, Va.—In the final stretch before Election Day, embattled Republicans feel as if they've received a gift from an unlikely donor: advocates of gay marriage.
They think that last week's ruling by New Jersey's Supreme Court ordering equal rights for gay couples—seven of whom had sued for the right to marry—is re-energizing Christian conservatives, who had been losing interest in and passion for politics. Republicans predict that could draw more conservatives to the polls next week, especially in the eight states that will vote on proposed amendments to their state constitutions to ban gay marriage.
The eight states comprise Virginia, Tennessee—coincidentally two states with razor-close Senate races that could decide which party controls the Senate next year—Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
Getting conservative Christians to the polls also could help Republicans in some close races for the House of Representatives, such as the one in Virginia's 2nd Congressional District. It's home to Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network and Regent University and includes a large number of Christian conservatives.
"It will improve turnout on our side," said Rep. Thelma Drake, R-Va., who's in a close re-election battle with Democratic challenger Phil Kellam. "We all work very hard for turnout. This is a plus for us."
Nearby, Sen. George Allen, R-Va., visited two largely black churches Sunday, where he invoked the New Jersey ruling as a potent reminder of the need to pass the proposed amendment to the Virginia state constitution banning gay marriage.
"The Supreme Court decision in New Jersey this week showed even more importantly to the people of Virginia why the Virginia marriage-protection amendment is so important," he said afterward.
Asked if the issue would help him appeal to African-Americans, who might have grown skeptical about his candidacy after news reports that he used racial epithets while in college, Allen noted that several people at one service stood up in support of his remarks about marriage.
"There will be some who say, and they will be wrong, that this is a divisive issue," he said during a later campaign event with two former pro football players, both African-American. "I look at it as a bridging issue. This is one that brings many people of different backgrounds together. Bringing the issue up as a salient issue, regardless of race or ethnicity or religious denomination, unites many people."
President Bush added the gay marriage issue to his standard campaign-rally speech on Monday. He drew cheers from crowds in Georgia and Texas by telling them, "We believe marriage is a union between a man and a woman and should be defended."
After years of growing political participation and helping Republicans win, Christian conservatives have been pulling back this year, frustrated by their inability to win significant victories in public policy such as a ban on abortion, and perhaps disillusioned by the page sex scandal in the House.
One sign: The ranks of Christian conservatives with favorable views of the party dropped from 74 percent two years ago to 54 percent this year, according to the Pew Research Center.
"Evangelicals remain the party's most supportive group, but at levels significantly diminished from where they were in the 2002 and 2004 elections," a recent Pew analysis said.
If a rally Sunday in Norfolk is a guide, however, the threat of the New Jersey ruling could bring some of them back into politics.
"I'm a born-again Christian," said Vernon Mills, a retired Navy veteran from Norfolk, standing amid a sea of yellow lawn signs urging support for the anti-gay marriage amendment that outnumbered candidates' signs.
"The Bible tells us God created Adam and Eve. One man and one woman. That's the way it's supposed to be. ... I hope it passes by a landslide."
"Prior to the New Jersey decision, I may have questioned whether the commonwealth of Virginia needed this amendment," added Leo Wardrup, a Republican state legislator from Virginia Beach.
"The New Jersey decision made a lot of people say, `Wait a minute.' The New Jersey decision is a catalyst showing people that this is necessary. And it's going to get more people to turn out on Election Day."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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