WASHINGTON --The looming fight over a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage will excite some supporters of each political party -- evangelical Christians for the Republicans, gay rights advocates for the Democrats -- but both parties run the risk of alienating moderates by pushing too hard, political analysts and pollsters said yesterday. Voters nationally oppose gay marriage by double-digit margins but are evenly divided on the question of whether to amend the constitution in most surveys. Beyond the activists on both sides, there is little appetite for a fight: Most voters rank such an amendment low on their list of priorities.
But President Bush's decision to pursue the amendment creates potential pitfalls for both sides, analysts said.
The long process to amend the constitution will require substantial effort and debate on the part of advocates of the amendment, which is likely to draw Bush more deeply into a battle he has tried to avoid for months.
And if conservatives begin making progress in Congress and in state legislatures in blocking gay marriage, gay activists are sure to step up their demands on the Democratic candidates. So far, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry and North Carolina Senator John Edwards have been able to appeal to the Democratic majority by opposing gay marriage but satisfy gay constituents by arguing that states should be free to make their own decisions.
Bush's speech yesterday, however, moved the issue to the forefront of a nation already divided on many issues. "I think it basically will lead to more polarization," William Carrick, a leading Democratic political consultant from California, said of Bush's decision to push the amendment.
A Gallup poll this month indicated each side receiving 47 percent of the vote, making a constitutional amendment against gay marriage one of many issues to evenly split the electorate. But most voters do not rank gay marriage as an especially important concern, especially as compared with issues like tax cuts or efforts to combat terrorism.
"The public is opposed to gay marriage, but they don't have a head of steam for a constitutional amendment," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. "We tested 24 priorities for the president and Congress and it came in 23d of 24."
Pushing too hard for either side may risk alienating moderates, according to polls: When same-sex marriage moves from a theoretical question to an actual likelihood, voters get skittish and support drops. Likewise, when conservative rhetoric moves beyond opposing gay marriage to banning it through the Constitution, many voters switch sides.
The strong inference is that most voters do not want to be pushed by either side, Kohut said.
"Compared to jobs and dealing with terrorism and dealing with health care, this is not a first-tier issue," he said.
But it is unlikely that gay marriage will simply fall off the radar screen. The court battle in Massachusetts and the decision by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to issue same-sex marriage licenses already ensure that gay marriage will be on front pages and leading TV newscasts for months to come.
Social conservatives have been pressing Bush relentlessly to support the amendment and denounce gay marriage more frequently, something Bush has been slow to do.
For a man who won support in 2000 as a "compassionate conservative," going so far as to amend the constitution to block same-sex marriages could come off as harsh and divisive, analysts said.
"The president has to be very careful how he talks about this," said Carrick.
As for the Democrats, Kerry and Edwards were quick to denounce the constitutional amendment while holding firm to their personal beliefs that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Gay rights groups are not satisfied, but yesterday seemed inclined to give the candidates some space to develop their position.
"We call on all public officials to support equality and look to the future of the country," said David Tseng, executive director of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, pointing to polls suggesting that more younger voters support gay marriage.
But when asked whether leading gay rights groups would increase pressure on Kerry and Edwards, Tseng demurred.
"They're in the business of getting elected," Tseng said. "We plan to point the poll numbers out to them and argue that it's clear that the future is equality."