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Bush Uses Gay Marriage Ruling To Energize Conservative Voters

By Sheryl Gay Stolberg


The divisive debate over gay marriage, which played a prominent role in 2004 campaigns but this year largely faded from view, erupted anew on Thursday as President Bush and Republicans across the country tried to use a court ruling in New Jersey to rally dispirited conservatives to the polls.

Wednesday’s ruling, in which the New Jersey Supreme Court decided that gay couples are entitled to the same legal rights and financial benefits as heterosexual couples, had immediate ripple effects, especially in Senate races in some of the eight states where voters are considering constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage.

Bush put a spotlight on the issue while campaigning in Iowa, which does not have a proposal on the ballot. With the Republican House candidate, Jeff Lamberti, by his side, Bush — who has not been talking about gay marriage in recent weeks — took pains to insert a reference into his standard stump speech warning that Democrats would raise taxes and make America less safe.

“Yesterday in New Jersey, we had another activist court issue a ruling that raises doubts about the institution of marriage,” Bush said at a luncheon at the Iowa State Fairgrounds that raised $400,000 for Lamberti.

The president drew applause when he reiterated his long-held stance that marriage was “a union between a man and a woman,” adding, “I believe it’s a sacred institution that is critical to the health of our society and the well-being of families, and it must be defended.”

The ruling in New Jersey energized conservatives at a time when Republican strategists say that turning out the base could make the difference between winning and losing on Nov. 7. With many independent analysts predicting Republicans will lose the House and possibly the Senate, Bush’s political team is counting on the party’s sophisticated voter turnout machinery to hold Democratic advances enough that Republicans can at least maintain control.

“It’s a game of margins,” said Charles Black, a Republican strategist who consults frequently with Karl Rove, the chief White House political strategist. “You’ve got about 20 House races and probably half a dozen Senate races that are either dead even or very, very close. So if it motivates voters in one or two to go vote, it could make a difference.”

Democrats predicted Thursday that the gay marriage debate would not dramatically alter the national conversation during an election that has been dominated by the war in Iraq and corruption and scandal in Washington. But around the country, Republicans quickly embraced the New Jersey ruling as a reason for voters either to send them or to return them to Capitol Hill.