MILWAUKEE -- It was a brief mention, a few seconds in Wednesday night's 90-minute presidential debate. But Senator John F. Kerry's reference to Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter Mary, who is a lesbian, touched off a campaign-trail tempest yesterday.
In response to a question on whether he thinks homosexuality is a choice, Kerry responded: ''We're all God's children . . . And I think if you were to talk to Dick Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she's being who she was, she's being who she was born as. I think if you talk to anybody, it's not a choice."
Almost immediately, Republicans expressed outrage at Kerry's mention of Mary Cheney. Some accused Kerry of raising her name in an effort to sway voters who might be put off by homosexuality, and criticized a statement by Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill on FOX News that the vice president's daughter is ''fair game."
''I did have a chance to assess John Kerry once more," said Lynne Cheney, the vice president's wife, at a post-debate rally in Coraopolis, Pa. ''This is not a good man. And of course, I am speaking as a mom and a pretty indignant mom. This is not a good man -- what a cheap and tawdry political trick."
At a rally in Fort Myers, Fla., yesterday, the vice president told the crowd that Kerry ''will say and do anything in order to get elected . . . And I am not speaking just as a father here -- though I am a pretty angry father -- but as a citizen."
The Democrats pushed back. Yesterday morning, Elizabeth Edwards, wife of Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards, told ABC News Radio that Lynne Cheney's response had made her ''really sad."
''It indicates a certain degree of shame with respect to her daughter's sexual preferences that I'm certain makes her daughter uncomfortable," Elizabeth Edwards said. ''That makes me very sad on a personal level."
Kerry campaign advisers said Republicans were using the issue to distract voters from the economic issues raised in the debate.
In a written statement issued yesterday, Kerry said: ''I love my daughters. They love their daughter. I was trying to say something positive about the way strong families deal with this issue."
Mary Cheney, who is working in her father's reelection campaign, is openly gay, and the vice president has brought her up in answer to questions on his position on gay marriage. He believes the matter should be left to the states to decide, even though the president has strongly supported a federal constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
During the vice presidential debate, moderator Gwen Ifill questioned Cheney about Bush's push for a federal constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. When it was time for Edwards to comment, he said, ''You can't have anything but respect for the fact that they're willing to talk about the fact that they have a gay daughter, the fact that they embrace her. It's a wonderful thing." Cheney thanked Edwards for his ''kind words." Afterward, Mary Cheney and her partner came on the stage to appear with the vice president.
The controversy has angered some gay activists. The Log Cabin Republicans, a gay group that withheld its endorsement of Bush this year because of his support for the federal constitutional amendment, criticized both parties.
''Kerry could have made his points without mentioning the vice president's daughter," said Chris Barron, the group's political director. ''But the reality is, it was the president and his campaign that have politicized gay and lesbian families during this election. It's outrageous that gays and lesbians have been used in this way during the campaign."
Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, found the query that led to Kerry's answer -- whether homosexuality is a choice -- offensive in itself, saying it was appropriate for Kerry to mention Cheney.
''Gay and lesbian people have been watching our lives and our issues being tossed round like a political football, as opposed to being talked about as real people, with real lives and real families, and real human issues," he said. ''Mary Cheney was the gay liaison for Coors, she is a key leader in [the vice president's] campaign. It's not as if Kerry talked about a person who wasn't out of the closet . . . It put a human face on the issue."
''What's tawdry, and what they should be angry about, is the Republican party's overt and ugly smears of all gay people including, therefore, [their own] daughter," Foreman said. ''They ought to call off their buddies on the radical right who cannot talk about gay people without also talking about pedophilia, bestiality, and molestation, [instead of choosing] the party and this partisan game-playing over their own child."
Patrick Healy of the Globe staff contributed to this report.