Long before John F. Kerry said as much in Wednesday night's presidential debate, Mary Cheney had been open about the fact that she is a lesbian.
But by invoking the sexual orientation of the vice president's daughter, the Democratic candidate unleashed a rhetorical tempest on issues as diverse as the morality of gay marriage, the place of family members in political discourse and the roots of human sexuality.
Anger among Bush campaign officials and supporters mounted Thursday as Cheney called himself "a pretty angry father" and Kerry "a man who will do and say anything to get elected." Lynne Cheney, his wife, said Kerry was "not a good man" and accused him of a "cheap and tawdry political trick."
But Kerry and his supporters responded that Cheney had been first to discuss his daughter in relation to the issue of gay marriage, at a town hall in August. Elizabeth Edwards, wife of Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards, said the vehemence of Lynne Cheney's response "indicates a certain degree of shame with respect to her daughter's sexual preferences."
A number of gay rights activists said they thought many Republicans were betraying their discomfort with the issue. They pointed out that Mary Cheney had been open in political and business endeavors about her sexual identity for years.
"It's as if John Kerry had said Mary Cheney was an ax murderer or something," said Cheryl Jacques, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay civil rights organization. "The response belies the fact that the extreme right thinks that it is a bad thing that Mary Cheney is gay."
But Michele Ammons of the Christian Coalition of America, said the real outrage was Kerry's "infringement into a personal family matter."
"I think this is going to snowball, and he's going to have to apologize."
The controversy grew out of Kerry's response to a question by debate moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News. Schieffer told Kerry and President Bush that he understood they both opposed gay marriage but wondered how they arrived at that position. He asked: "Do you believe homosexuality is a choice?"
Bush responded, "I just don't know. I do know that we have a choice to make in America, and that is to treat people with tolerance and respect and dignity." He added that he had proposed a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and woman because he was concerned that activist judges were defining marriage.
Asked for his response, Kerry said: "We're all God's children, Bob. And I think if you were to talk to Dick Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she's being who she was; she's being who she was born as. I think if you talked to anybody, it's not choice."
Following the debate, television commentators across the political spectrum chastised Kerry as "out of bounds."
Fox News analyst Morton Kondracke noted Wednesday that Edwards had a week earlier raised Mary Cheney's sexual orientation in his debate with Cheney. "Kerry repeated it tonight, which I think is totally underhanded," Kondracke said, calling the Democrat's statement "the outing of Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter."
Rich Bond, chairman of the Republican National Committee when Bush's father ran for reelection in 1992, said Kerry was "an utter lowlife for going after Mary Cheney like that."
"I was watching the debate last night with 10 Republicans, and they were just stunned," Bond said.
If Democrats wanted to drive conservatives away from the Republican ticket, Bond said, they instead had "the absolute opposite effect of pissing off Republicans like myself beyond belief."
Campaign officials said that Mary Cheney had no intention of commenting on the matter.
Campaigning in Las Vegas on Thursday, Kerry released a statement saying of the episode: "I love my daughters. They [the Cheneys] love their daughter. I was trying to say something positive about the way strong families deal with this issue."
Appearing on MSNBC's "Hardball With Chris Matthews," Edwards said he and Kerry had tried to put "a personal face on an issue that has been used to divide this country."
Several Democrats noted that it was Cheney who first spoke about his daughter, when he was asked in August about gay marriage at a campaign stop in Davenport, Iowa. "Lynne and I have a gay daughter, so it's an issue that our family is very familiar with," Cheney said, explaining that he opposed Bush's call for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
Cheney also made no objection last week in the vice presidential debate when Edwards complimented his "wonderful" willingness to talk about his daughter's sexual orientation.
Before joining her father's vice presidential campaign in 2000, Mary Cheney was the Coors beer company's liaison to gays and lesbians. She helped the company improve its image, getting Coors to provide financial support to a number of gay organizations and traveling to gay bars, where the brewery sponsored an "International Mr. Leather" competition.