His mother carved out a marginal existence as a secretary, until the day she got off at the wrong bus stop and was mugged by four men. She suffered a broken back, lost her job and, in great physical and emotional pain, turned to alcohol. "There was no second source of income and we were compelled to go on welfare," Daniels said. "If my father had been in our home, chances are that would not have happened."
A Dartmouth scholarship was his ticket out. Later, in law school, he studied the social consequences of fatherless families. At Brandeis, he researched the way courts are used as tools of social change. What he found bothered him.
While other conservative groups were focused on stopping abortion and stem-cell experiments, Daniels spent years tracking lawsuits that sought to "strike down our marriage laws." Jurists, he believed, were driving social change against the will of the democratic majority. If the trend continued, he reasoned, a constitutional amendment would be the only way to stop it.
Even during those years, his fatherless childhood plagued him. At 32, he married a family physician, but the decision to wed was tortured. "Imagine you are considering taking a very important job
The lingering effects of growing up fatherless shaped what would ultimately become the mission of the Alliance for Marriage: "More children raised at home with a mother and a father." The group has worked on a wide range of efforts to prevent family disintegration, including eliminating penalties for welfare recipients who marry, reducing what is often called the "marriage tax'" and making the workplace marriage-friendly.
But it was same-sex unions, Daniels believed, that would inevitably provoke the biggest battle, once the courts' acknowledgment of gay partnerships collided with the mainstream conception of what makes a marriage.
Last fall, his political prescience was validated when the Massachusetts high court ruled that same-sex couples were entitled to marry, a decision it affirmed this month. Conservative groups promptly demanded a constitutional amendment to bar gay marriages.
There at the ready, language in hand, was Daniels.
Since then, the mayor of San Francisco directed the city clerk to change the wording on marriage licenses and begin issuing them to couples regardless of gender -- and more than a thousand same-sex couples have lined up to exchange vows on Valentine's Day weekend. Opponents of the mayor's action have gone to court to try to have the mayor's action voided.
Support for the amendment has snowballed and Daniels soon found himself spearheading an election-year issue that is helping to reenergize the Christian conservative movement. Still, it makes for a strained alliance with some conservative activists, who believe the amendment does not go far enough in banning all legal recognition for gay unions.
Some supporters say that Daniels' amendment is politically shrewd, because some lawmakers -- even those opposed to gay marriage -- believe that allowing civil unions is a matter of states' rights.
"The White House and Republican leaders have told conservatives this is all they are going to get," Knight said. "But we believe the message ought to be the other way around: If you don't deliver an actual honest-to-God defense of marriage, then we won't see this as a friendly act."
Gary Bauer, a conservative activist and former Republican presidential candidate and conservative activist, sees Daniels' proposal as "an appropriate starting point" that he expects to change as it makes its way through Congress. "It's not what I would prefer," he said. "But I don't think there is anything written in stone on the wording."
Meanwhile, Daniels continues his crusade for votes.
"If you assert a lesbian couple is the full functional equivalent of a male-female family, you are making the claim that half the human race -- dads -- make no unique contribution to the care or nurturing of children," he said . "And the same holds true for mothers. Each has different and complementary gifts needed to raise a child." Daniels insists he feels no animosity toward gay people. His education exposed him to more gay colleagues and professors than he can count. "One would have to have lived in a hermetically sealed box to have escaped interaction with lots and lots of gays and lesbians," he said.
But would even a constitutional amendment have kept his father from walking out that day?
"No, it wouldn't," he conceded.