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CAMPAIGN '08: RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

Quiet stands on gay marriage

McCain backs the proposed California ban. Obama doesn't. They both handle it over the Internet.

July 02, 2008|Michael Finnegan and Cathleen Decker | Times Staff Writers

Presidential candidates can command instant national attention when they want it. But John McCain and Barack Obama each took a hushed approach to letting the world know where they stand on the California ballot measure to ban same-sex marriage.

The muted announcements -- McCain supports the proposed ban, Obama opposes it -- will have little if any bearing on the presidential contest in a state that strongly favors Democrats.

Beyond California, though, the ramifications are serious -- especially for McCain. Advisors hope his support for the November measure will help appease socially conservative evangelicals long wary of the Arizona senator.

But like McCain's other recent gestures to align himself with the Republican Party's conservative wing, it risks turning off the independent voters whose support is crucial to his White House aspirations.

McCain's support for the measure to put a same-sex marriage ban in the California Constitution is part of his effort to reconcile with conservative evangelicals. The senator who once branded the Revs. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as "agents of intolerance" has pledged to put more conservatives on the federal bench and has reaffirmed his support for letting states outlaw abortion.

Already looming large are his support for expanding President Bush's tax cuts, keeping U.S. troops in Iraq for years and lifting the federal ban on offshore oil drilling. All of those pose potential trouble for McCain in a race against a Democrat who has shown strong appeal among independents.

So McCain stepped quietly into California's emotionally charged gay-marriage campaign.

He announced his support last week for the ballot measure, known as Prop. 8, in an e-mail to protectmarriage.com, a group promoting it.

"I support the efforts of the people of California to recognize marriage as a unique institution between a man and a woman, just as we did in my home state of Arizona," he said.

For independents, polls show, gay marriage and other social issues have dropped in priority as they have begun to fret over such pressing matters as surging gas prices, home foreclosures and joblessness, along with the war in Iraq.

Even in 2004, when the initial burst of same-sex weddings in Massachusetts and San Francisco made the issue prominent in the presidential campaign, relatively few independents cared much about it.

And now, even less so: A May survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that just 23% of independents see gay marriage as very important, down from 28% in 2004.

"There are a lot of issues that I think will be seen in the context of this election as sideshows, and I think this is one of them," said Curtis Gans, director of American University's Center for the Study of the American Electorate.

It remains a matter of debate whether the same-sex marriage bans on 11 state ballots in 2004 spurred conservative turnout and aided Bush's reelection. But this year, some conservatives hope that a gay marriage ban on Florida's November ballot can help McCain.

McCain's case is a tricky one to make; he opposes the proposed federal constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, which Bush promoted in 2004.

McCain's nuanced explanation -- that it's up to the states to decide -- can be a hard sell for voters, said Ellen Ann Andersen, a political scientist, gay activist and author. Federalism, she said, "makes most people's eyes want to roll to the back of their head."

For Obama, too, there was scant appeal in taking a high-profile stand on the California ballot measure. He is trying to peel off some of the Republican Party's traditional support from white evangelicals. On Tuesday in Ohio, he championed taxpayer aid to religious organizations that offer social services.

"He has very much been making a play for evangelical voters, suggesting that there would be no reason that an evangelical should vote against him," said Gary Bauer, founder of the conservative Campaign for Working Families group. By opposing the California measure, he added, "it becomes harder to make that case."

Obama first announced his opposition to the measure only in response to media inquiries -- and then in a letter posted on the website of the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club in San Francisco. He told the group, named after the author who was the partner of writer Gertrude Stein, that the nation should recognize lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans "with full equality under the law."

He called the ballot measure "divisive and discriminatory" and concluded by congratulating "all of you who have shown your love for each other by getting married these last few weeks." Left unstated was that Obama has declined to endorse gay marriage, saying that civil unions would suffice to protect partners' rights.

His approach, no doubt, could limit Obama's reach with conservative evangelicals. But overall, the issue is a more difficult one for McCain, said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.

"For Obama, I think it probably is a less important issue," he said, "because the kinds of people who take this very seriously on the right aren't going to vote for him, and the kind of people who take this very seriously on the left are going to vote for him."

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michael.finnegan@latimes.com

cathleen decker@latimes.com

Times staff writers Dan Morain, Peter Nicholas and Maeve Reston contributed to this report.

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