PRESIDENT BUSH'S endorsement last week of a constitutional amendment preserving the current understanding of marriage, and the decision of John Kerry and other leading Democrats vehemently to oppose it, ensures that the marriage debate will be front and center in American politics. And it will be prominent not just in 2004, but very likely for a number of election cycles to come.

Until recently, that seemed far from certain. One year ago, gay marriage looked too radical to enter mainstream debate as early as 2004. One week ago, with the photogenic mayor of San Francisco and other local officials rushing to violate state marriage laws with minimal judicial or political opposition, it seemed possible gay marriage would become the American norm with little serious opposition, much as happened with no-fault divorce in the early 1970s.

The seeming paradox traces to one cause: Rarely has there appeared an issue where the gap between elite and popular opinion is so great. A year ago, it was Democratic elites, including and perhaps especially those sympathetic to gay marriage, who wanted to keep this issue in the closet. A week ago, many Republican elites found the idea of capitulating to gay marriage far more attractive than fighting it. Judging from their statements in the wake of the president's announcement, many House and Senate Republicans still hope the issue will fade quickly enough that they won't have to vote on the marriage amendment this year. They are likely to be disappointed.

This is because, in the face of media and elite sympathy for gay marriage, a huge swath of popular opinion appears to be hardening its opposition. Millions of voters are not simply disapproving, as they might be of the Super Bowl halftime show. They seem prepared to change their votes to the extent the marriage debate becomes politically central. For weeks, respected GOP pollster Bill McInturff, not known as a social conservative, has been sharing results of a national poll showing a 4-point Bush lead turning into a 15-point lead should a fight over the definition of marriage become a prominent campaign issue.

Emergence of the marriage debate as the dominant values issue of 2004 is good news for Bush and his political team. It comes at a time when the other two big issue clusters, foreign policy and economics, have become (at least for now) a more even matchup between Bush and Kerry--foreign policy because of our inability to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the economy because surprisingly few new jobs are so far being created in the midst of a growing economy.

Yet despite the readiness of Democratic and media elites to attribute the president's announcement last week to opportunism, hardly anyone who has spoken to or closely observed the president believes he was eager to engage on this issue. Few politicians welcome a near-universal bad press, which is a certainty for serious opponents of gay marriage. The palpable anger of the White House press corps that accompanied every question in press spokesman Scott McClellan's briefing the day of the president's announcement bore witness to that.

Moreover, Bush has previously gone to considerable length to avoid an open clash with the gay rights movement. For example, the president's faith-based legislation has been stalled on Capitol Hill because of opposition by the gay rights movement to an obscure provision called the ministerial exemption, which permits participating faith-based ministries to avoid hiring gays if the practice of homosexuality is anathema to their faith. Though widely known on Capitol Hill, this opposition has never been mentioned as a factor, much less criticized, by Bush or his team.

Only a few weeks ago, before the high court of Massachusetts issued its edict that only gay marriage, rather than Vermont-style civil unions, would meet its understanding of the two-century-old Massachusetts constitution, it was quite possible that the 2004 version of the marriage issue would have been a state-level debate over civil unions--one with limited impact on the presidential campaign. But a 4-3 judicial majority in John Kerry's home state decided that that was not to be--that the only "constitutional" response by the legislature is full-fledged gay marriage, with its inevitable carryover to the federal tax system, Social Security, estate taxation, and all the rest.

Remarkably, in Thursday night's Democratic presidential debate in California, John Edwards said the reason he would have voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, had he been in the Senate in 1996, is that he disagrees with denying the full range of federal marriage benefits to gay partners in any state that enacts gay marriage. So much for the fiction that national Democrats will allow the marriage debate to plod along as a state-by-state issue.

As for the normally adroit Kerry, a baffling exchange in the same California debate with reporter Ron Brownstein seemed to leave him with the following positions: He is happy to have voted against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, but he no longer believes, as he did then, that DOMA is unconstitutional. He is against DOMA now, but thinks Congress probably shouldn't repeal it. He is in favor of the definition of marriage as involving a husband and a wife, but any congressional effort to codify this Kerry position would be polarizing, "gay bashing," or (most likely) both.

As this performance suggests, Democrats are both uncomfortable with where they are and stuck with it for now. Congressional Democrats are nearly unanimous against the Marriage Amendment, and thus any near-term vote count will show that the needed two-thirds majority is not possible in either house. Timid Republican congressional leaders will no doubt try to conclude that holding such votes in 2004 is a bad idea because "the votes are not there."

In the wake of the president's endorsement, this kind of contrived escape is the one thing that could make the GOP a net loser in this year's marriage debate. Now that he is committed on this issue, the president will need to make sure that House and Senate votes take place before the election, because only with stark, recorded, up-or-down votes will the Republicans clearly be seen by the electorate as the party that is serious about taking action to defend marriage. Because the national Democrats have no intention of openly advocating gay marriage, the lack of a vote on the constitutional amendment designed to prevent it would leave the two parties' positions on the issue muddled and hard to distinguish.

George W. Bush did not take the oath of office 37 months ago thinking he would have to fight for the Judeo-Christian definition of marriage--any more than he expected to be fighting a world war against Islamist terrorism. But as his foes have learned, strong leaders step up not just to the goals they campaigned on, but to challenges they never could have imagined.

Jeffrey Bell and Frank Cannon are principals of Capital City Partners, a Washington consulting firm.

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