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While many have hailed Democrats' courtship of LGBT voters as one giant leap for gaykind, perhaps the movement's future progress lies on the GOP side of the fence

Remember 2004, when President Bush threw his weight behind the Federal Marriage Amendment to constitutionally deny same-sex couples the right to marry? Or 2006, when the only real question for GOP candidates was whether they backed the FMA or, like John McCain, preferred to let individual states decide to constitutionally prohibit same-sex marriage?

Well, say hello to 2008 and a field of Republican candidates as variable on gay issues as their predecessors were rote.

Take Rudy Giuliani, who nearly a decade ago, as mayor of New York City, signed landmark domestic-partnership legislation that was deemed a model for the rest of the country. Better yet, he continues to support domestic partnerships now that he's running for president (a stance made explicit, if guarded, on the Issues page at, making him the first and only GOP candidate for president to publicly endorse any rights for gays whatsoever.

Sure, as his candidacy thrived, Giuliani backed off a bit--these days he's saying no to civil unions because they go "too far"--but when was the last time a Republican candidate had to tack right on gay issues to downplay his previously moderate views? That exact question drew dead silence from Kenneth Sherrill, professor of political science at Hunter College's Center for Sexuality and Public Policy in New York City. "I'm trying to think of an example," he finally said, to signal that he was still on the other end of the line.

Trivia questions aside, it would mean one thing to gays if Giuliani, the most gay-friendly candidate the GOP has ever seen, were to nab the Republican nomination next year, and it would mean something very different if one of his competitors got the nod. All of this may sound rather ho-hum to LGBT Democrats who are choosing from a bounty of contenders who generally support civil unions, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the hate-crimes bill, and the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." But how the eventual Republican nominee runs on gay issues promises to affect the LGBT movement in powerful ways.

Romney rising

Of the four leading candidates this year--Giuliani, Mitt Romney, McCain, and Fred Thompson--only Romney flat-out backs the Federal Marriage Amendment. McCain and Thompson would rather leave the issue of marriage to the states, though Thompson has added an extra flourish of late: He would seek to amend the U.S. Constitution to protect any state from having to recognize another state's marriage laws and prohibit judges from legalizing same-sex marriage without the consent of state legislatures.

Now, if Romney won the GOP primary, you can bet your pink fedora he would put his cross hairs on gays and lesbians right out of the gate. In fact, he already took aim in an Iowa ad this fall. "Not all Republican candidates agree, but defending marriage is the right thing to do," he said in the 60-second spot. "As Republicans, we must oppose discrimination and defend traditional marriage: one man, one woman."

Yes, that is the very same man who sought support from the Massachusetts Log Cabin Republicans in his 1994 run for Senate with a letter that, among other things, stated: "If we are to achieve the goals we share, we must make equality for gays and lesbians a mainstream concern." But now that he's courting the Christian right rather than Massachusetts moderates, he's done a well-documented 180. "Romney wants to make gay marriage one of the symbolic things to show Christian conservatives that he is in step with them, that he shares their values," says Tony Fabrizio, a Republican consultant and pollster for former senator Bob Dole.

The national Log Cabin Republicans have certainly been mulling over the implications of a Romney win. They recently ran their own ad in Iowa (and nationally on the Fox News channel) to remind GOP primary voters of Romney's more moderate--dare we say liberal--days. The spot employed archival footage of Romney's failed 1994 campaign to unseat senior Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy, including a moment when he tries to distance himself from the father of modern-day conservatism. "I was independent during the time of Reagan-Bush," the old Romney says. "I'm not trying to return to Reagan-Bush." And this bombshell: "I believe abortion should be safe and legal in this country."

That's enough to send any self-respecting "values voter" straight over the edge, especially now that Romney's touting himself as a dyed-in-the-wool social conservative. "He's been all over the map on every issue," says Patrick Sammon, executive director of Log Cabin, "and we think it's important to educate Republicans about Governor Romney's entire record."

The ad has particular resonance because it features Romney contradicting himself in the flesh. Says Fabrizio, "Any time a candidate's credibility or character is called into question by his own words, it is usually problematic." Indeed, the vivid display of Romney's formerly progressive views has fueled the fire of doubt in conservatives, who have questioned his credentials ever since he entered the race. As one conservative blogger on recently mused, "Has he really changed in his thinking, or does his thinking change according to his electoral needs?"

The former Massachusetts governor's recent conversion on issues like gay rights and abortion have, at the very least, staved off the wrath of evangelical leader James Dobson. The head of Focus on the Family, apparently more interested in demonizing than extending brotherly love, has unilaterally panned every other major candidate, even threatening to mount a third-party candidacy if either Giuliani or McCain wins the nomination. Romney has so far escaped his scorn.

"If James Dobson is mad about who's running for president, that's a good sign for [gays and lesbians]," explains Sammon.

A thin line between love and hate

The candidate who has raised Dobson's ire the most is Giuliani. He's also arguably the preferred GOP candidate for gays. For one, he's not likely to target LGBT issues, lest he remind GOP moralists of his slightly too-gay past. And perhaps more important, his moderate stance on social issues has the potential to attract independent and crossover votes, which could force Democratic candidates to court the base of the party even more assiduously. Let's review: Giuliani backs domestic partnerships, while the Democrats support civil unions; both Rudy and the Dems oppose the FMA, while agreeing that marriage is between a man and woman. With Giuliani as competition, presumably a Democrat would have to work harder to distinguish himself or herself on gay issues. Democratic political consultant Paul Yandura puts it this way: "A Giuliani that would come out and be just inches away from any other Democratic candidate [on gay rights] is going to force the issue."

True, Giuliani isn't as gay-friendly as the Democratic front-runners: He has studiously dodged questions about ENDA, has said it isn't time to revisit "don't ask, don't tell," and has gone out of his way to assure conservatives that he will appoint "strict constructionist" judges to the federal bench. But to make the distinctions clear, the Democrat facing Giuliani is going to have to highlight those points--that is, discuss gay issues. "With most Republican candidates, the Democrats might be able to take the gay vote for granted," says Sherrill of Hunter College. "As a result, they would operate on the assumption that they will get 75% to 80% of the gay vote no matter what they do [and] probably say as little as possible on LGB-related issues."

It's known as "electoral capture" when a candidate can take an interest group for granted because they have no place else to go with their votes. Ironically, the Christian right faces the same dilemma with Republicans--only they're so thoroughly dissatisfied with their choices this time around, "they're having a bit of a temper tantrum right now," says Sammon. But it's a tantrum with teeth. As Fabrizio notes, evangelicals likely have the manpower and money to escape electoral capture by putting an ultraconservative third-party candidate on the ballot in most states, profoundly affecting the presidential race.

"That would probably be viewed as catastrophic," Fabrizio says of the GOP's chances of keeping the White House (think Ralph Nader's impact on Al Gore's candidacy in 2000). And that could cause the Republican Party to balk at nominating moderates like Giuliani for years to come. "The lesson would be: If you nominate a Giuliani, this is what's going to happen."

And so, the Christian right and Log Cabin find themselves on opposite sides of the same struggle, fighting for the future of a party that could either perpetuate the Bush-Rove culture war or unite over core values of fiscal responsibility, small government, and national defense.

"Presidential primaries don't come along very often where you don't have an heir apparent--an incumbent," says Sammon, underscoring the stakes. "It really is an important opportunity to chart the party's future direction." And a good opportunity to see what lies ahead for us.

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