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How Frist fumbled on gay marriage amendment

Republicans think they have an advantage in the "mainstream" war on the issue of gay marriage. But they may have tossed it away this week. Howard Fineman reports.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., center, won't find it as easy to use a procedural vote against Democrats as a yes or no on the proposed amendment.Dennis Cook / AP

It's a river that exists only in the minds of political strategists, but it's the key body of water in the presidential campaign of 2004. The Democratic ticket, George W. Bush keeps saying, is "out of the mainstream" because of its stands on abortion, gay rights, guns and defense spending. The Kerry-Edwards team responds by saying the president and the Republicans dishonor "American values" with their policies on Iraq, taxes and social programs.

That's why the Democratic convention in Boston won't look anything like the recent fund-raiser at Radio City Music Hall in New York. Bill Clinton will speak, but there will be no  crotch jokes from Whoopi Goldberg —indeed, no Hillary Rodham Clinton. You'll see lots of Vietnam veterans, including former Sen. Max Cleland, the triple amputee, war hero and Kerry friend. At the Republican convention you won't see Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell in prime time (a mistake Bush's father made in Houston in 1992). You'll see the Bush family and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a social-issue liberal married to the Kennedy family.

The mainstream is going to be crowded.

Republicans think they have an advantage in the "mainstream" war on the issue of gay marriage. But they may have tossed it away this week. In proposing a constitutional amendment to define marriage only as "the union of a man and a woman," the GOP's goal was to put Democrats on the cultural defensive and to inspire religious conservatives who form the core of modern the party today. Instead, the White House and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist have exposed divisions among Republicans and, through a well-meaning procedural mistake, allowed the Democratic ticket to wriggle free of the need to cast a potentially harmful vote on the matter.

According to the polls, most Americans oppose the idea of sanctifying the unions of gay or lesbian couples by calling it "marriage." In other words, they generally disagree with the recent ruling of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Seeking to capitalize on that sentiment, GOP leaders have been pushing an amendment that would apply not only to federal law — which could affect federal benefits and rights of various kinds — but to all the states.

But, from the beginning, Senate GOP leaders have faced hurdles, mathematical and political. For one, they needed two-thirds of the Senate — 67 votes if everyone is present — to send the amendment to the states for ratification. Then, they needed 60 votes (no matter how many senators were present) to shut off the kind of endless "filibuster" debates foes can use to delay any Senate action. They got just 48 on Wednesday.

Frist faced further problems: A handful of "moderate" GOP senators, most from New England, who are more socially tolerant of gays and lesbians, and other Republicans, who are cultural conservatives, but who nevertheless loathe the idea of amending the constitution for any reason.

In the end, Frist and White House strategist Karl Rove couldn't decide whether they really wanted to pass the measure or merely have a vote they could campaign on. The result is that they got neither.

Rather than seek an up-or-down vote on a toughly worded version of the amendment, Frist and his allies (led by Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania) allowed discussion of a second, milder one. But since that one (which would leave latitude to the states) might actually pass, Democrats opted to mount a filibuster. As a result, the central (and only) vote turned out to be on a motion to shut off debate — a harder vote to use in an attack TV ad.

The procedural posture also allowed Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards to slip the noose. Since the motion to shut off debate requires 60 votes, the John-John ticket can pay homage to gay rights by merely not showing up — but can claim neutrality of a sort on the core issue by not having to vote on it.

In larger terms, of course, swing voters will have to judge the two tickets based on their own definition of "mainstream." Are Whoopi Goldberg and her crotch jokes "mainstream?" Are Charleton Heston and his NRA views  "mainstream?" That will be one element of the mix in key places such as Southwestern Pennsylvania, Central Ohio and the I-4 Corridor in Florida.

The GOP will use the "gay marriage" issue in all three places, to motivate their core religious conservatives if nothing else. But they would have been able to speak to a broader audience, in more simple terms, if they had forced Kerry and Edwards to cast a vote on the issue.

There will be mailings and probably TV ads anyway, but it's not the clean shot they wanted. And among swing voters (who tend to be more "secular" than other voters in any case) it's not the No. 1 issue. Having spent a lot of time on Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, I can tell you that the top two issues — and the ones they expect presidential leadership on — are the war and the economy.

Republican strategists hope the gay marriage issue will be particularly helpful in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, which are home to one of the leading proponents of the amendment, Santorum. But a Pennsylvania Democrat with strong credentials as a cultural traditionalist contends it won't help the GOP much. "It could have an effect in some parts of the state," said Robert Casey, an ardent anti-abortion Catholic who is state auditor.

But Casey said that most voters in the Pittsburgh area are more concerned about the economy, especially the shrinking manufacturing base, and in any case are wary of amending the Constitution. "They are like me, against gay marriage, but not for messing with the Constitution. The issue may help the Republicans a bit with their base, but nothing beyond that."

A new poll, Casey noted, shows Kerry having moved from 18 points down to 2 points ahead in southwest Pennsylvania. Though still far short of where Kerry needs to be — at least 10 points ahead in the region — it's progress, according to Casey, and a trend the gay marriage issue alone is unlikely to reverse.

Howard Fineman is Newsweek’s chief political correspondent and an NBC News analyst.