WASHINGTON -- Even as Republican officials were voicing fierce opposition to yesterday's court ruling on gay marriage in Massachusetts, many GOP strategists reacted with glee: In their view, the decision handed President Bush a powerful election-year issue, one destined to further divide the two parties along cultural lines.
Over the next year, as the Massachusetts Legislature takes up the issue and opponents press for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, Republicans are poised to use the issue as a symbol of liberal values -- a tack that could prove effective in important Southern states and the Midwest.
The subject is especially pertinent to this race, given that the case was decided in the home state of one of the candidates, Senator John F. Kerry, in the city where the Democratic National Convention will be held, and next door to Vermont, where candidate Howard Dean, as governor, signed a civil union bill into law.
All of the leading Democrats running for president have said they oppose gay marriage while supporting civil unions. But the distinction between civil unions and marriage is ill-defined in the minds of many voters, strategists say, making it easy for Republicans to accuse their opponents of taking a position they do not hold.
"This is the wake-up call for both the American public and our elected officials," Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, which opposes gay marriage, said in a statement released shortly after the court ruling. "We must amend the Constitution if we are to stop a tyrannical judiciary from redefining marriage to the point of extinction."
Marion Edwin Harrison, president of the Free Congress Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to politically and culturally conservative goals, called the issue "a galvanizing force" that will "lead to increased enthusiasm on the part of voters who consider themselves moral people."
More broadly, he said, the impression the ruling sends to voters nationwide is that "Massachusetts is lurching toward Sodom and Gomorrah a little bit faster than some of the other states are."
Indeed, some data suggest that a growing number of Americans oppose gay and lesbian marriage, a view being fueled by religious institutions, particularly evangelical churches, where pastors preach that same-sex unions are a sin.
In a poll released by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 59 percent of respondents said they oppose same-sex marriage, up from 53 percent in July. The most significant shift in attitude was among those with a high level of religious commitment -- that is, regular churchgoers -- 80 percent of whom opposed gay marriage, up from 71 percent this summer, the poll said.
Almost 75 percent of respondents who intend to vote for Bush in 2004 said they oppose gay marriage, and more than 50 percent strongly oppose it, the poll found. Respondents who planned to vote for a Democrat in 2004 were divided, with 46 percent supporting gay marriage and 48 percent opposing it.
Bush, traveling overseas, left little doubt that a high-profile debate is ahead. "Marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman," Bush said in a written statement. "I will work with congressional leaders and others to do what is legally necessary to defend the sanctity of marriage."
John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron who specializes in politics and religion, said he expects both a short-term and long-term political ripple effect as a result of the Supreme Judicial Court ruling. While energizing conservatives in the short term, it will also "have a long-range impact on the '04 election."
"If you have a large number of conservative Christians aroused, this could create problems for the eventual Democratic nominee directly, because many of the prospective nominees have endorsed civil unions," Green said.
Democrats concede that, on balance, the gay marriage debate does not give them any political advantage. But they warned that Republicans could overplay their hand, especially if they come across as biased. Already, on one of the two previous occasions he has addressed the subject in public, Bush remarked that people are "all sinners," a comment that some took to mean that he thinks homosexuality is a sin.
Similarly, a protracted, bitter fight in Congress -- over a federal constitutional amendment banning marriage, now under consideration in the House -- could alienate wide swaths of the electorate.
"It's one thing to be against gay marriage. It's another to say you're going to go far away from your house and stop it someplace else," said Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Newton. "That becomes something of an antigay activity. . . . We're going to make sure that's the issue they [the Republicans] are going to have to face." If they cannot mute the debate entirely, Democrats plan to portray it as a "wedge" issue that is being pursued by Republicans for political gain. "There will be those who try to use the decision today to divide Americans," Dean, the Democratic front-runner, said in a statement. "Instead, this decision should be viewed as an opportunity to affirm what binds us together -- a fundamental belief in the equality of human beings, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation."
Another potentially delicate question for the White House is Vice President Dick Cheney's remarks during the 2000 campaign that state-by-state choice is better than federal policy on gay unions: "I think the fact of the matter, of course, is that . . . different states are likely to come to different conclusions, and that's appropriate. I don't think there should necessarily be a federal policy in this area."
Frank said Democrats would force Republicans to address the question of states' rights, especially as the Republicans attempt to pass a constitutional amendment. "If the question is, `Should one state be able to force every other state to do this, should Missouri vote for a constitutional amendment stopping Massachusetts from doing it?' -- I don't know how they answer that one," Frank said. "I think it is as much a difficult issue for them as it is for us."
In fact, the administration has been examining the legal and political questions surrounding gay marriage for some time. After concluding that there was no way under current law to ban gay marriage nationwide, Bush came to support the effort to pass a constitutional amendment, as his remarks yesterday suggested. Jay Lefkowitz, who recently left his position as domestic policy adviser to Bush, acknowledged that forming that policy was complex.
"I think this is a very, very tough issue for the American people," he said. "I think most Americans feel that people should be able to do [what they wish] in the privacy of their own homes, free from discrimination or government instrusion. At the same time, I think most Americans think marriage is between two people of the opposite sex."
Mary Leonard of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Anne Kornblut can be reached via email at email@example.com.