WASHINGTON -- When President Bush beat Senator John F. Kerry in 2004, Republicans said a ballot initiative in Ohio to ban gay marriage sealed the election, drawing legions of conservatives to the polls.
Bush and Republican senators now will seek another dose of conservative magic to energize their party's base.
Call it nostalgia -- or election-year jitters.
This week's expected detour into some of the party's favorite social causes comes as Congress is locked in a stalemate over immigration policy, paralyzed over ethics legislation, and flummoxed by the Iraq war.
On Saturday, Bush urged support for a national ban on gay marriage, saying that the bond between a wife and a husband ``promotes the welfare of children and the stability of society."
Today, the president plans to meet at the White House with opponents of gay marriage, just as the Senate begins debate on a constitutional amendment to limit marriage to the union of a man and a woman.
A Senate vote on the issue is expected Wednesday.
Next, Senate majority leader Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee, wants votes on two perennial conservative causes: repealing the estate tax and giving Congress the constitutional authority to ban flag burning.
None of the measures is expected to pass, although the estate tax debate could yield a compromise that applies the tax only to the largest inheritances.
Despite the futility of the gay marriage and flag burning votes, some Republican strategists said they were just the jolt that conservative voters needed to overcome what polls suggest is their growing antipathy toward the party.
``Every time you have that conversation it reminds [voters] of what team they're on," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a prominent voice in conservative circles.
``I can't believe the American people can't see through this," Senator Joseph Biden, Democrat of Delaware, said yesterday on NBC's ``Meet the Press."
``We already have a law, the Defense of Marriage Act. . . . Nobody has violated that law," Biden said. ``There's been no challenge to that law. Why do we need a constitutional amendment?"
``I think this just highlights the fact they have no intention, they have no plan, to deal with healthcare," Biden said. ``They have no plan to deal with our national security. They have no plan to deal with the energy crisis."
Some conservatives, such as political direct-mail guru Richard Viguerie, also are skeptical about Republican motives. The upcoming votes aren't enough to compensate for what he considers a pattern of wayward behavior, he said.
``No conservative is going to take this as a change of heart or as a newfound belief in conservative principles," he said.
Other Republican operatives say the strategy is a waste of time when most Republican voters are angry or divided over the Iraq war, high gas prices, and immigration.
``Those are the issues that are dominating people's dinner-table talk," said Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign. Reed dismissed Frist's plan, saying: ``If you're a gay who likes to burn flags, it's going to be a long year."
But in his Saturday radio address, Bush described the proposed amendment as a means to rein in judges who have overturned gay marriage bans in Washington, California, Maryland, New York, and Nebraska.
``This national question requires a national solution, and on an issue of such profound importance, that solution should come from the people, not the courts," Bush said.
Same-sex marriage has been a prime issue for social conservatives since 2004, when a Massachusetts court decreed that the state must recognize such unions.
Voters in seven states will decide gay marriage initiatives this year. Alabama has it on the ballot tomorrow. The rest will be decided Nov. 6. Two other states want ballot initiatives as well.
But a Senate vote to change the US Constitution is much more removed from voters. Even if the House and Senate managed to get the necessary two-thirds majority, 38 states would have to ratify the change.
John Green, a researcher on religious voters at the University of Akron in Ohio, said the party's appeal to social conservatives might work, but would satisfy only one slice of potential Republican voters.
``It's not going to bring back swing voters who are angry over Iraq, or fiscal conservatives," he said.
What's more, a national debate over gay marriage could backfire. It might energize liberal Democrats and alienate Republican moderates.
A study by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning research center, observed that public opinion has become more accepting of homosexuality. Polls show that while a majority doesn't support gay marriage, the country is evenly divided over a constitutional ban.
The issue's history is complicated. A constitutional ban has caused rifts before even among conservatives.