Guns, God and gays

The three Gs: Guns, God, and gays. Those little words pack a potent political punch.

And while they rank well below the economy or terrorism on most voters’ lists, those hot-button issues have already inspired some of the most careful political contortions of the 2004 presidential campaign.

Take these examples:

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., went on a highly orchestrated hunting trip last October, during which he killed two pheasants, just after aiming fire at his rival Howard Dean for the former Vermont governor’s alleged fealty to the National Rifle Association.

Dean announced earlier this month that he would begin to talk more and more about his faith, even though he wasn’t “used to wearing religion on my sleeve.” (That quickly became clear, as he said his favorite New Testament book was Job and then had to correct himself since Job is in the Old Testament.)

President George W. Bush, in his State of the Union address last month, spoke out against gay marriage, without uttering the words “gay” or “homosexual,” and referred vaguely to a “constitutional process” if “activist judges” insisted on “redefining marriage.” Some conservatives came away thinking Bush had embraced a constitutional amendment banning gay unions, while others heard qualifiers and hedging.

As the presidential primary moves to Missouri and other points south and west this Tuesday, such calibrations are only likely to become more frequent, with the candidates readjusting their messages on social issues such as gun control, abortion, and gay marriage.

“Those are three of the most divisive issues in American politics today and in Missouri in particular,” said Rick Hardy, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

The reason, Hardy argued, is that there are two wings of the Democratic Party in Missouri – the liberal contingent in the urban centers of St. Louis and Kansas City and the pro-gun, anti-abortion segment in other parts of the state.

“They do not like anyone messing with their guns, they tend to be very pro-life, and they are very patriotic,” Hardy said of Missouri’s rural Democrats.

Dean himself has said that his party’s candidates have too often faltered in southern and western states because of “guns, God, and gays.”

And while the Democratic contenders have so far only engaged in minor scuffles on these sensitive subjects, there’s little question they will become full-blown battlefronts when the general election begins – even if the candidates themselves would prefer to keep them below the radar.

Indeed, Stanley Greenberg, a top Democratic pollster, suggested at a political forum on Friday that the only way for Democrats to win over those voters would be to “change the subject” away from the three Gs and convince them that the election should be about something else.

The issue that seems to carry the great political peril, and that has opened the biggest policy gap, among the Democratic contenders so far has been gay marriage.

It has been increasingly in the public eye in the wake of a ruling last November by the Massachusetts Supreme Court, which declared unconstitutional a state ban on same-sex marriages, prompting a political scramble in the Democratic field and at the Bush White House.

Al Sharpton and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, have both said they favor allowing gays to marry. “That’s like asking do I support black marriage or white marriage,” Sharpton said at a debate last summer.

But the major Democratic candidates, including Kerry, Dean, and Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., have espoused a fine line on the question. They oppose gay marriage but support civil unions, a step short of marriage that still grants homosexuals certain legal rights.

With polls showing that a majority of Republicans – as well as a large swath of Democrats – oppose both gay marriage and civil unions, Republicans clearly hope to use the issue to their advantage.

“Marriage is quickly becoming the biggest issue for social conservatives in the country,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.

It could be especially potent, some strategists believe, against Dean, who signed the nation’s first civil unions law as governor of Vermont. But as Bush’s own remarks on the subject show, it holds some peril for him as well.

While it plays to Bush’s base and could help turnout a key constituency–conservative Christians-it also could alienate swing voters who may see intolerance in the president’s position. Thus Bush’s carefully crafted lines in last month’s State of the Union.

It was an “artful way” to satisfy “the political marketplace that he’s facing,” said Scott Keeter, associate director at the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. “But he didn’t want to threaten the full-scale assault at this point. He probably hopes it doesn’t come to (that).”

Grover Norquist, who heads the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform, said there’s always a risk of overplaying such issues. “Anytime someone is seen as intolerant, you lose the fight,” he said.

While gay marriage may be the newest hot-button social issue on the election agenda, gun control is no less potent.

Dean has argued that Al Gore lost the 2000 election in large part because of his strong support of gun control, which cost him dearly among white rural male voters in states like Missouri. The former Vermont governor has said he is best positioned to neutralize the gun issue because while he supports current gun control laws, he believes stricter measures should be left to the states.

That stance, while potentially popular in a general election, made him a target in the primary, with Kerry playing up Dean’s support from the NRA in Vermont.

Kerry, by contrast, vowed not to be “the candidate of the NRA,” a line the Massachusetts senator could use to woo suburban swing voters in a general election match-up against Bush but that might haunt him in a contest for conservative Democrats.

A similar calculation will likely hold on abortion, another “wedge” issue that sparks a visceral response among key segments of the electorate.

There are no significant differences among the Democrats on this issue (all are abortion-rights supporters). But there is a wide chasm between the Democrats and Bush, an anti-abortion president who recently signed into law a ban on late-term abortions.

Bill McInturff, a GOP pollster, noted at a forum on the polarized electorate last week that the White House has been carefully tending to a conservative coalition on abortion and other social issues, but in an under-the-radar way designed to attract minimum attention.

“They very quietly have worked very hard … trying to find ways to keep all of them animated without hitting the conflict point,” he said.

Greenberg, the Democratic pollster, agreed that Bush had done a good job of cultivating his base. But, he said, Democrats have a chance to win over some in the GOP’s conservative coalition, namely lower-income white men.

“They are unhappy with the job losses. They’re unhappy with the corporate special interests. And they don’t like the inequities in the (Bush) tax cuts,” Greenberg said – an analysis that McInturff did not dispute.

“The Republicans will very likely raise these cultural issues … to try to keep them from acting on their doubts on the economy,” Greenberg said. The trick for Democrats, he added, is “escaping” that debate and focusing instead on “our own forms of patriotism” with a broad appeal to unity and nationalism.

“Essentially we’re saying `Don’t vote on those issues. That’s not what this election is about. This election is about whether we’re going to have a 100 percent country again,'” Greenberg said. “We want to change the subject.”