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Kerry says GOP may target him on 'wedge issue'

Gives his OK to civil unions, not marriage

PORTLAND, Maine -- John F. Kerry vowed yesterday to fight back against Republicans seeking to tie him to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision allowing same-sex couples to marry, and did not rule out supporting a state constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage.

Meanwhile, Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who withdrew from the race after faring poorly in the Iowa caucuses, decided to endorse Kerry.

Kerry campaign officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Missouri lawmaker will give Kerry his backing today in Warren, Mich., a suburb of Detroit. The endorsement is a boost for Kerry, who has been aggressively pursuing labor unions that had endorsed Gephardt.

Kerry told reporters querying him on the gay marriage issue after a Portland rally that if Republicans "want to turn this into some wedge sort of issue and distort my position, I will fight back very clearly."

"I support equal rights, the right of people to have civil unions, to have partner rights. I do not support marriage" for gays and lesbians, he said.

Asked if he would support a state constitutional amendment barring gay and lesbian marriages, Kerry didn't rule out the possibility. "I'll have to see what language there is," he said. The candidate received an enthusiastic reception from about 250 supporters at a Boys and Girls club in Maine, where he is hoping to further solidify his front-runner status when the state holds its caucuses on Sunday. Kerry yesterday picked up the endorsements of Maine Governor John E. Baldacci, former Senate majority leader George J. Mitchell, and Senators Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin of Michigan.

Leading in the delegate race and in several polls for upcoming primaries and caucuses, Kerry yesterday ignored his primary foes and focused his criticism on President Bush, who he said is "the one person in the United States who deserves to be laid off."

But while Kerry emphasized jobs and foreign policy, Republicans seized on the issue of gay marriage, which they believe will accentuate a cultural divide and hurt the eventual Democratic nominee -- especially if the Democratic pick happens to hail from the state whose highest court said gays must be allowed to marry.

"It fuels every perception of Massachusetts as the most liberal state in the country," said Whit Ayres, a Republican consultant based in Virginia. Ayres said that Kerry "called for civil unions, which is all but gay marriage without the name," and predicted that gay marriage would become "the number one social issue in the presidential campaign."

Even though Kerry opposes the court ruling and gay marriage, the Massachusetts ruling reinforces the "Northeastern liberal" label, Ayres said, and could damage him in swing states. "To the extent that the difference between Bush states and Gore states in 2000 was a cultural divide, the gay marriage issue only widens the cultural divide," Ayres said.

Mark Shields, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group, said Americans would vote on jobs and the situation in Iraq, not on the question of gay marriage. "Gay marriage isn't even in the top 10 of issues people are going to vote on," Shields said, quoting a recent poll indicating that 58 percent of Americans did not believe the Constitution should be amended to ban same-sex marriage.

"The Republicans always make a mistake of overplaying this issue," said Kerry deputy campaign manager Steve Elmendorf.

The question of gay marriage bedeviled onetime favorite Howard Dean, who was forced by a Vermont court when he was governor to allow civil unions for homosexual couples. But the issue dissipated with Dean's decline in the campaign. Bush made reference to gay marriage in his State of the Union speech, in which he warned "activist judges" against giving gays and lesbians the right to marry. He stopped short of calling on Congress to approve a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, but indicated he would support one if necessary.

"I have the same position Vice President Dick Cheney has," Kerry said yesterday, sounding annoyed at being asked about an issue he said was a matter for states' legislatures to decide. "They ought to talk to Dick Cheney, their own vice president, when they start playing games with this, and we'll find out how political and how craven they are."

Cheney, who has an openly gay daughter, has said people should be open-minded about gays but that the question of legalizing gay marriage was "not a slam dunk," adding that "different states are likely to come to different conclusions, and that's appropriate."

Kerry hammered away yesterday at Bush for his record on both domestic issues and foreign policy. "George Bush has run the most reckless, inept, arrogant, and ideological foreign policy in . . . modern history," Kerry said, eliciting loud whoops from the crowd.

Mainers at the event said Kerry's message on jobs and foreign policy would trump any campaign talk about gay marriage. "They're going to attack him any way they can," said supporter Sarah McCleary, 42. "I don't think it's going to be a problem for him."

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