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Gay-marriage ruling pushed voters

Mobilized Bush, left Kerry wary

The meeting that some say doomed John F. Kerry's presidential bid took place in a Cincinnati suburb May 18, the day after same-sex couples began marrying in Massachusetts.

Shocked by scenes from the Bay State, Phil Burress of Citizens for Community Values brought together lawyers to discuss how to make sure it would never happen in Ohio. The solution, they concluded, was an amendment to the state constitution.

To get the measure on the ballot, the group collected 557,000 signatures, registering about 54,000 new voters in the process. On the Sunday before Election Day the group had 2.5 million pamphlets inserted into church bulletins. Right before the polls opened, they phoned 850,000 supporters to remind them to vote.

On Tuesday, the Ohio amendment banning same-sex marriage passed, and Kerry lost to President Bush in Ohio by 136,483 votes.

''We would not have had this on the ballot if they had not started marrying people on May 17," Burress said.

In the days after Tuesday's elections, conservative activists and some Democrats are increasingly pointing to the Supreme Judicial Court's decision that legalized gay marriage in Massachusetts, along with the images of gay weddings in San Francisco, as a key reason for Kerry's loss. President Bush hammered home the portrayal of Democrats as out of step with mainstream values by endorsing a federal amendment to same-sex marriage and by often reminding crowds that Kerry was from Massachusetts, a subtle code, in the eyes of some strategists.

Exit polls show that ''moral values" was the issue that mattered most to the largest number of voters, outpacing terrorism, Iraq, and the economy. Twenty-one percent of voters cited ''values," compared to 20 percent who pointed to the economy, 18 percent who said terrorism, and 15 percent who said Iraq. Seventy-eight percent of the values voters supported Bush.

Gay marriage is only one of several issues thought to be wrapped up in the values category, along with abortion, stem-cell research, and television and film violence. But some conservative activists believe it was the most potent of all.

''Ministers of the Gospel, both evangelical and Catholics and the Orthodox, are saying that this so fundamentally contradicts Scripture that if we permit this, our civilization as we know it is gone," said veteran conservative activist Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation. ''People are saying, 'Oh, my gosh, we had no idea.' It has really grabbed people. Many of them are putting it in apocalyptic terms, that these are 'end times' if this is allowed to happen."

Long before voters went to the polls, supporters of same-sex marriage privately worried about a backlash and wondered whether the push to legalize marriage, rather than Vermont-style civil unions, was moving too fast. To some, Tuesday's results confirmed those fears: 11 states passed a ban on same-sex marriage, voters reelected a president who supports a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and the House and Senate increased the number of Republicans.

Gay activists now find themselves in the uncomfortable position of defending the right to marry in Massachusetts, a few months after celebrating their gains.

''This is a long-term civil-rights struggle," said Mary Bonauto, the lead lawyer in the case that legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. ''What can I say? There are some places like Massachusetts, Connecticut, and California where the discussion is further along than it is in other states."

Kerry was wary of the subject from the start. When Bush endorsed a federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in February, Kerry said he opposed it, but added that individual states should be allowed to define marriage as they see fit. He later endorsed efforts underway in Massachusetts to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage but allow civil unions.

Bush brought up the ruling throughout the campaign. In July, during one of his weekly radio addresses, he said the decision to legalize same-sex marriage by ''the Massachusetts court" sends a ''message to the next generation that marriage has no enduring meaning."

On the campaign trail, Bush often disparaged the Bay State and labeled Kerry as a ''tax-and-spend" Massachusetts liberal. Some Democrats believe that in accentuating Kerry's roots, Bush was talking about more than fiscal policy.

Ed Kilgore, policy director for the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, called it ''an unhappy accident" that the Democrats nominated a Massachusetts senator so soon after the SJC decision.

''Obviously, the president and Republican operatives made a big deal of this," he said. ''I didn't realize at the time how much the whole 'Massachusetts liberal' thing was connected to that."

One Democratic Senate candidate, Representative Brad Carson of Oklahoma, said the presence of a same-sex marriage amendment on that state's ballot brought out conservatives ''in droves," helping doom his Senate bid, though he supported the amendment.

It also helped propel Senator Jim Bunning, a Kentucky Republican, to victory, despite his frequent gaffes.

The ballot initiative in Ohio, though, proved the most critical to the presidential race.

''There is plenty of analytical and anecdotal evidence out there over the last couple of days that the Republicans hit the jackpot with the rural folks in Ohio," said Al Cross, who heads the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. ''For people in rural America, gays are a great unknown. They are an alien thing, often to be feared."

To regain their footing, Democrats must figure out how in the future to handle same-sex marriage and other values-laden issues, many analysts say. Some are urging Democrats to speak more comfortably about their religious values, as Kerry did increasingly in the closing weeks of the campaign.

Kilgore said the Democrats must work to persuade voters that they take values as seriously as they do economics, thereby ''building trust with millions and millions of people who are culturally conservative and who want to make sure we think their concerns are legitimate." Kilgore doesn't think the Democrats should appropriate Republican positions -- Kerry's view on same-sex marriage was the centrist view, he points out -- but it does mean paying more attention to values-laden issues.

''It's a matter of trust," Kilgore said. ''A lot of these folks don't have a lot of trust in politicians to begin with, and they want to know whether you're living in the same moral universe as they are."

Democrats in Massachusetts say they are unlikely to back off their support of same-sex marriage. The issue will probably come up again next year, when lawmakers are expected to consider whether to place a proposed amendment banning same-sex marriage and establishing civil unions on the November 2006 ballot.

''I think people have to have backbone when it comes to supporting civil rights," said Phil Johnston, Massachusetts Democratic Party chairman. ''The Civil Rights Act of 1964 didn't do us any good in the South, but it was the right thing to do. Allowing gays and lesbians to marry and have the same rights as everybody else is the right thing to do. Let the political fallout be what it's going to be."

Supporters of same-sex marriage insist that this issue did not cost Kerry the election, and they point to exit polls showing that voters increasingly accept gays and lesbians in America. They also argue that thousands of same-sex marriage activists got involved in the elections, from state legislative races in Massachusetts to the presidential race across the country.

Bonauto said the idea that the issue doomed Kerry is ''total spin by the other side." With the exception of Michigan and Oregon, which Kerry won, and Ohio, the states with proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot were solidly red ones that Bush would have won anyway, she said.

Cheryl Jacques, head of the Human Rights Campaign, said that after the election, gay-rights supporters ''may feel anger, defeat, and, perhaps, even a sense of failure."

''I have one message," she said. ''Not a second of the millions of hours of work we've done was in vain. We lost a battle, but we are winning the war."

Raphael Lewis of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Scott S. Greenberger can be reached at greenberger@globe.com.

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