Image: Howard Dean Campaigns At Iowa Fair
Howard Dean grilled pork chops as he campaigned at the Iowa State Fair last week. Elsewhere in the state, Dean was grilled himself on the topic of gay rights.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com

The nine candidates for the Democratic nomination for president, who all support either gay marriages or civil unions or letting states decide for themselves how to handle the matter, are at odds with a majority of Americans on the topic, creating what some in their ranks see as a liability for their party in a match with President Bush, who flatly opposes gay marriage.

With gay rights a potent, although usually below-the-radar topic on the campaign trail, Howard Dean, who signed the nation’s first civil unions bill when he was governor of Vermont, found himself facing a skeptical voter after a recent campaign speech at Lake Okoboji, Iowa.

June Goldman, a former county supervisor in Dickinson County, stood up during the question-and-answer period and challenged Dean to justify his support for civil unions for gay and lesbian couples. Goldman told Dean his stand will undermine the traditional institution of marriage.

A few days later, at a Teamsters rally for Democratic contender Dick Gephardt in Des Moines, Iowa, Rick Gardner, a Springfield, Mo., Teamster said he thought that Gephardt might not be electable because of his support for gay rights.

“There’s a lot of people who think he’s too far to the left and not mainstream,” remarked Gardner. “He’s got some views on gays and other issues that may conflict with mainstream America.”

‘MAINSTREAM’ NOT READY

Gardner said the support of Democrats such as Dean and Gephardt for gay rights “worries a lot of people. I’m not necessarily speaking for myself. Mainstream America is not ready for gay marriages.”

An Associated Press poll released this week gave some support to Gardner’s view, finding that 53 percent of those interviewed oppose allowing gays and lesbians to form civil unions that give a same-sex couple the same rights and benefits as a married couple.

The poll, conducted for the AP by ICR-International Communications Research of Media, Pa., found that 54 percent favor a constitutional amendment that would specify that marriage must only be between a man and a woman, while 42 percent oppose it.

Seventy-six members of the House have proposed such a constitutional amendment, but Congress has not yet acted on it.

President Bush said last month that “we ought to codify” the limitation of marriage to heterosexual couples, but did not explicitly support the proposed constitutional amendment.

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“That’s going to be a tough issue in the campaign,” Dean acknowledged when Goldman challenged him on gay rights at the Aug. 7 Lake Okoboji event. “But I think we’ve got to get beyond this, I really do. We need to be in this together, we need to leave no one behind,” he added.

He took a different tack when MSNBC commentator Bill Press asked him at a candidate forum five days later whether the civil unions bill would be a liability in the 2004 election.

“This is going to be fine,” he said. “It actually is going to work in my favor.”

UNIONS, NOT MARRIAGE

Dean is careful to distinguish civil unions from same-sex marriages.

“We don’t have same-sex marriage in Vermont,” Dean told Goldman. “Our bill says marriage is between a man and a woman, but same-sex couples may enter into a civil union and achieve all the same legal rights.”

He added, “We decided we would leave the marriages to the church. … That is not the business of the state, that is the business of the church.”

At a forum last month sponsored by the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign, moderator Sam Donaldson said to Dean, “You are against marriage of the same sex. Why?”

Dean replied, “I’ve never said that, as a matter of fact.” And he avoided answering a question about civil marriages performed by a justice of the peace or a judge, complaining that Donaldson was spending too much time on the issue. “Do you want to keep talking about this, or do you want to go on to the military question?” Dean said.

The issue of where to draw the line on gay rights is a sensitive one for some voters.

Goldman, who describes herself as an independent who voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 and George W. Bush in 2000, made a point of telling Dean, “I’m not homophobic. I’ve had many friends who are gay and lesbian over the years.”

But she added, “A nation’s strength is developed from the strength of its families. I’m deeply concerned about the trend that has been set in Vermont with reference to same-sex marriages. This is an issue that is quite apart from civil rights. It is something that goes deeper than that.”

Her fellow Iowan, Tim Lapointe, chairman of the Cerro Gordo County Democratic Party in Mason City, Iowa, takes a different view. “It’s time to step up, as Howard Dean did, and say that these people should be given the same rights as everyone else. That was a courageous move. I’d like to see the other candidates come out as strongly as Howard Dean on the issue. That’s one of the reasons Dean is so popular: He’s not afraid to say what he feels is right.”

A June Gallup poll found that opposition to same-sex marriages is strongest in the South, where 62 percent of those interviewed were against such unions. And the South is where Democrats have fared worst in recent elections. In 2000, Al Gore won no states south of Maryland.

CANDIDATES’ VIEWS

In addition to Dean and Gephardt, Democratic presidential contender Sen. Bob Graham of Florida and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts support civil unions.

Democratic contender Rev. Al Sharpton supports same-sex marriages, deriding civil unions as comparable to giving couples “the right to shack up but not marry.”

Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun also support same-sex marriages.

North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman say each state should decide on civil unions.

At last month’s Human Rights Campaign forum, Kerry labored to explain why he did not accept same-sex marriages.

American society, he said, “culturally, historically and religiously views marriage very differently. Marriage is viewed as a union between men and women, and that is a cultural, historical view that I believe — that’s my position.”

But Kerry held open the prospect that civil unions would pave the way for same-sex marriage.

“It may well be that if we achieve civil union ... that we may all of us progress as we have progressed in the last 15 years to a place where there is a different understanding of it,” Kerry said.

Kerry’s framing of the issue parallels Bush’s discussion of the abortion issue in the early stages of the 2000 campaign.

Bush said America was not yet ready to ban abortion because “America’s hearts are not right” and that “instead of arguing over Roe v. Wade, what we ought to do is promote policies that reduce abortions.”

Bush’s gradualist rhetoric was a way of trying to satisfy anti-abortion activists, while also attempting to reassure voters who feared a sudden judicial decision banning abortion.

VOTE ON AMENDMENT?

Just as the gay marriage issue confronts the presidential candidates, it may also face members of Congress up for re-election next year.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., strongly supports the proposed constitutional amendment that would outlaw same-sex marriages and civil unions.

The first Senate hearing to determine whether such an amendment is needed is scheduled for the first week of September after Congress returns from its summer break.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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