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The Nation

Candidates Leery of Gay Marriage Debate

July 03, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

In a statement on his Web site, Dean said he would relish a debate with Bush over the Vermont law and the federal law. "I can't wait to ask the president of the United States why he doesn't support equal rights," Dean said.

Several other Democratic candidates have criticized Bush's record on gay rights. All have endorsed federal legislation to ban discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sexual orientation. Most want to revise the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy that requires gay and lesbian soldiers to keep their orientation a secret.

But few Democratic strategists see an assault on the Defense of Marriage Act as a step toward victory in 2004. Three dozen states have versions of the federal law. California voters passed one in March 2000, with their landslide approval of Proposition 22.

When Democratic contenders roundly praised the Supreme Court ruling last week, conspicuously absent from many comments was the issue of gay marriage.

Lieberman's statement was typical: "The court," he said, "moved us a step closer to giving gays and lesbians a full, fair place in our society." But he did not say what the next step should be. A campaign spokesman declined Wednesday to elaborate.

If candidates are reticent on the subject, activists are not.

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in May published a study declaring that as a group, the Democratic candidates were more supportive of equal rights for gays than any previous batch of White House aspirants.

But Sean Cahill, who edited the report, said gay and lesbian voters -- an influential force within the party -- should demand more.

"We want people to use this and go to Howard Dean in a forum or John Kerry and say, 'Why don't you support marriage?' " Cahill said. "Look Joe Lieberman in the eye, and say, 'Why are you not with me on this?' "

Similarly, many social conservatives have grown restless at what they view as Bush's muted response on gay rights' issues.

They were disappointed that the administration did not support the Texas anti-sodomy law as the Supreme Court considered the case, even though Bush as governor backed the law.

They wanted the White House to more strongly support Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) when he became embroiled in controversy in April after an interview in which he linked consensual gay sex to adultery, bigamy and incest.

Now they want Bush and his administration to be more outspoken in opposing gay marriage.

"Try as they might, they're not going to be able to avoid the issue," said Ken Connor, president of the Family Research Council.

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