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Inside Politics

Gay marriage a hot-button issue for '04 race

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The '04 Democratic candidates and their party chairman might be reluctant to admit there's any real political impact of the Massachusetts Supreme Court's landmark ruling allowing gay marriage on Tuesday. But theories about which party could get burned by this hot button social issue continue coming nevertheless.

In a 4 to 3 ruling, the judges on the Massachusetts court found that under the state's Constitution, the state cannot bar same sex couples from marrying. The court gave the Massachusetts state legislature 180 days to come up with new rules to grant marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.

Following the ruling, rather than the usual strategy of rushing out to be included in the public reaction on this story, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidates released short statements via e-mail. Their low key approach may be a reaction to public opinion on this issue.

A CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll taken last month shows that a little more than one third of Americans think gay marriages should be legally valid.

CNN's Bill Schneider reported on Tuesday that polling indicates that Americans tend to show more support for granting gay couples legal rights -- the right to adopt, to get health insurance coverage, or to receive inheritance benefits. But on the issue of "marriage," the public to date has been less comfortable.

This is the position that most of the Democratic candidates espouse -- no on gay marriage, but strong support of laws providing equal legal protections.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, appearing on CNN's Inside Politics, downplayed the significance of the issue for the 2004 election and tried to paint Republicans into a corner with Vice President Cheney's words.

"As Dick Cheney said in the 2000 campaign, these types of issues ought to be dealt with by state legislatures...this election, will not be fought on these wedge issues, which I know the Republicans are going to try and do," McAuliffe argued.

While Democrats may get away with fobbing the issue off on states to decide, President Bush won't get off that easy.

Earlier this year President Bush affirmed his position that marriage is between a man and a woman, but the president did not explicitly state whether or not he would push for a constitutional ban on gay marriages. With the prospect of other states following Massachusetts' lead, religious conservatives are pushing hard for federal action that would trump he inconsistent rulings by state courts.

Gary Bauer, president of the conservative group American Values, and a candidate for president in 2000 made the case that the president didn't have a choice on what action to take.

Bauer, told me on Tuesday's "Inside Politics," that he expected the president to work aggressively for a constitutional amendment:

"George Bush doesn't want on his watch to say that marriage, defined as the union of one man and one woman, was lost," Bauer said.

Bauer argued that if this is a win-win issue for the President Bush. If the president gets out front of this issue, he predicts Democrats will publicly oppose any constitutional amendment, allowing Republicans to argue that they are out of step with the American people.

Davis Mixner, a gay rights activist and the co-chair of the Gephardt campaign sees the political fallout differently.

He says such proposing such an amendment "will be the first time in the history of our country that we've put an amendment into the Constitution of the United States, our most sacred document, that specifically excludes an American group of citizens from the same rights, benefits and privileges granted every other American citizen."

For now the issue is playing out in the states, but if President Bush does listen to his political base, and the legal process propels this issue to a higher level, this issue could make the 2004 political season even hotter.

Judy Woodruff is CNN's prime anchor and senior correspondent. She also anchors "Judy Woodruff's Inside Politics," weekdays at 3:30 pm ET.

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