A legal ruling compelling Massachusetts to allow same-sex marriages may prove troublesome for Sen. John Kerry if he becomes the Democratic nominee for president. Political analysts said that Wednesday's decision by the Massachusetts supreme judicial court would be ammunition for Republican strategists planning to portray Kerry, who is currently the Democratic front-runner, as "another Massachusetts liberal." The fact that the Democratic convention this summer is scheduled to take place in Boston may help their case, playing on the stereotype of Kerry's home state as a liberal paradise outside the more conservative American mainstream. "This election is shaping up to be a photo finish," said Republican political consultant Scott Reed. "Every issue like this could make a difference on the margins. There are huge chunks of the country in the South and West that think this kind of decision is crazy and that Massachusetts must be crazy to produce it."
Kerry himself has said he supports equal civil rights for gays and lesbians and their right to civil unions but that he opposes full-fledged same-sex marriage. "I oppose gay marriage and disagree with the Massachusetts court's decision," he said. In the 1988 presidential campaign, George Bush, father of the
current president, destroyed his Democratic opponent, then-Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, by portraying him as a weak New England liberal out of touch with most of America. "The fact that this decision came down from Massachusetts is a gift for the Bush campaign. It makes it easier for them to try to paint Kerry as from Massachusetts and therefore too liberal and therefore out of touch,"
said Vanderbilt University political scientist John Geer. Against this, Kerry's only defense will be to come across as "very strong, very tough. He simply cannot allow the other side to frame him like this," said
Boston Democratic political consultant Michael Goldman.
A Washington Post/ABC survey in January found only 41% of Americans in favor of same-sex marriage and 55% against. When it came to civil unions, the figures were 46% in favor and 51% opposed. But the issue may stir more passion among opponents. "Kerry's position is not unreasonable, but this is a good issue for Republicans to mobilize and energize their political base," said Duke University political scientist John Aldrich. Conservatives have already combed through Kerry's record and found he voted against the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which passed the Senate 85-14 in 1996 and was signed by then-president Bill Clinton. The act denies federal recognition to same-sex marriages and gives states the right to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages licensed in other states.
Opponents of same-sex marriage are now pressing for a federal constitutional amendment declaring that marriage is a state reserved for one man and one woman. Bush has never quite committed himself to supporting such an amendment, but White House officials said he is actively considering throwing his full support behind the idea in light of the Massachusetts decision. Gary Bauer, a former Republican presidential candidate and leading Christian conservative, said Kerry faces an unenviable dilemma in that he cannot go further than he has against same-sex marriage without alienating his own political base. "Politicians hate getting themselves into cultural wars, but what Massachusetts has done guarantees that cultural issues will play a prominent part in the campaign," Bauer said.