The values debate
NEW YORK (CNN) -- While many Democrats and some Republicans (including John McCain) have complained loudly about the President Bush's re-introduction of the gay marriage issue, three important things should be noted.
First, this issue is not likely to go away and is likely to have its biggest impact in energizing the president's Christian conservative base nationally, perhaps bringing as many as 4 million additional voters to the polls this fall -- particularly in key battleground states like Arkansas, Oregon, Ohio and Michigan where there may be ballot initiatives on the issue.
Second, the gay marriage initiative is just one of a set of "values issues" that the Bush team will raise in coming months as they seek to dent presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry's likely July surge in the polls and highlight what they consider Kerry's "unacceptably liberal" positions.
Other issues that will be raised include gun rights (especially in the South), abortion (will be raised more quietly than guns or gay rights), and the death penalty. The last issue may actually be the most potent of all.
Indeed, according to a recent Gallup poll, 74 percent of Americans support the death penalty. Kerry largely opposes it (except for convicted terrorists) -- and 16 years ago President Bush's father used that issue to turn the tide against another Massachusetts Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis.
So while there is a lot of talk about gay marriage today, by election day, other values issues -- including the death penalty -- may play an even more significant role.
On all of these issues, the biggest question is how Kerry will respond. In 1988, Dukakis either did not respond on values issues or seemed emotionless and out of touch.
If Kerry does the same, despite the electorate's broader concerns about the economy and national security, Democratic hopes could fade.
Few would have predicted terrorism or war in Iraq would have been most critical to the winner of the 2000 election.
And similarly in the years following the 2004 election, many observers will likely be surprised by which world leader matters the most to American interests.
For my money, I suspect that while it is not being talked about a lot -- and frankly won't be before the election -- the next president's most important international relationship will be with a man named Hu Jintao.
Hu is the relatively new president of China, a 61-year-old former engineer who has come to power quietly but effectively. But while Hu has been quiet to date, no country and by extension no head of state is likely to have a bigger impact on American economic interests over the next 4-8 years.
Indeed, in terms of purchasing power parity, China is now the world's second largest economy and by 2008 could be tied in one way or another to more than 10 million American jobs. China not only has economic might, but military heft and a strong point of view on international issues as well.
From nuclear standoffs in North Korea and Taiwan to trade issues in Brazil to terrorism issues in Afghanistan and Iraq, the next president is likely to face international coalitions where China is not just a member but a trend-setting leader.
Among the world's biggest military and economic powers, on many of the most critical underlying societal issues from copyright laws and AIDS policy to clean air policy and social standards of decency, China -- rather than France, the United Kingdom, Russia or Japan -- is likely to joust head-on with the United States, often taking a very different point of view.
So while all eyes are on the Middle East or Europe at the moment, truly inquiring minds should be most interested in the presidential candidates' China policies and their relationship with its leader, Hu Jintao, in particular.