WASHINGTON — If Phil Burress has his way, Ohio will be a battleground this fall for more than just the presidential candidates. It will be the scene of a moral struggle over the future of marriage, an institution on the front lines of a culture war that some conservatives want to wage in this election year.
Burress, a conservative activist in Cincinnati, is laboring to put before Ohio's voters a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages. If he succeeds, Ohio will become one of about a dozen states where this issue has been muscled onto the November ballot.
Conservatives are pushing hard for state action in part because the issue is falling flat in Congress. Although the Senate began discussion Friday of a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, it almost certainly will not pass.
But same-sex marriage is roiling the politics of many states and could influence the outcome of the presidential election.
Republican strategists hope -- and Democratic strategists fear -- that the presence of anti-gay-marriage initiatives on the ballots of swing states such as Michigan and Oregon will boost turnout among conservative voters and improve President Bush's chances of winning crucial electoral college votes.
In the last month, activists in four states -- Arkansas, Michigan, Montana and Oregon -- have gathered enough petition signatures to force a vote in November on marriage amendments to their state constitutions. Five other states had already put the issue on their November ballots; two more will vote on amendments before then. Other states may yet take up the topic.
Those state petition drives are welcome successes for conservatives, who say they have found it surprisingly difficult to light a fire at the federal level for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
Conservatives seized the issue because they view same-sex marriage as an affront to the sanctity of a fundamental social institution -- and as a political issue that could be as potent an organizing tool as the fight against abortion has been.
Although public opinion polls show that a majority of Americans oppose legal recognition of same-sex marriage, there is less support for amending the Constitution to ban it.
What is more, polls show that only a minority of voters consider the issue a top priority. Many people had not even considered the question until a Massachusetts court five months ago thrust it onto the national agenda by ruling that same-sex couples had a right to marry.
"People on the street in Los Angeles or Sacramento don't necessarily realize the significance of what's happening in the courts," said Matt Daniels, president of the Alliance for Marriage, a group leading the fight for a federal constitutional amendment. Same-sex marriage is so far removed from most people's lives, Daniels said, that "people are not thinking about this."
But same-sex marriage remains a potent political issue because the segment of the population that is concerned about it cares so intensely, GOP pollster Bill McInturff said.
"This is one of the three or four issues that will define this election cycle," he said.
The issue may rouse potential Bush supporters who need an extra shove out the door on election day. These include conservatives who have been disillusioned by parts of Bush's record, such as his big increase in federal spending, as well as the 4 million Christian conservatives who did not vote in the 2000 elections, to the frustration of Bush political strategist Karl Rove.
"In rural areas or exurbia, where there may be voters who have some disappointment with Bush, either on the budget deficit or other things, this is the kind of thing that will drive them to the polls -- to his benefit," said Gary Bauer, a conservative leader.
Gay rights activists say the fact that Republicans are pushing the marriage amendment to a vote in Congress when there is no hope of it passing makes it clear that the issue is simply a political gesture to appease conservatives.
"You can see what their raw agenda is," said Cheryl Jacques, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group that supports same-sex marriage. "President Bush believes this will mobilize his extreme-right base."
Gay rights organizations are urging their members to get involved at the state and federal levels. "Bush and his political team are playing with fire," Jacques said. "They awoke a sleeping giant. The gay community is more activated and galvanized than ever before."
But some analysts and congressional staff say the more intense lobbying pressure seems to be coming from the right.
"We have received a lot of calls, and phone volume is heavy against gay marriage," said Scott Milburn, spokesman for Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio).
People promoting marriage amendments in Congress and the states deny they are doing so simply to help Bush, but few dispute that they expect it to redound to his political benefit.