Will Same-Sex Issue Prop Up Bush's Polls?

With President Bush's poll numbers stuck at their lowest levels ever, he is trying to stop erosion in support among Republicans. After nearly two years of saying almost nothing on same-sex marriage, Bush spoke in support of a constitutional amendment, both in his weekly radio address and in later comments.

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In 2004, the president's support for a Constitution amendment barring same-sex marriage was the staple of his re-election campaign. The topic was part of his regular stump speech as he traveled the country eliciting big cheers from religious conservatives who supported him. But once the president's second term began, Mr. Bush suddenly stopped talking about it, until now, when it was the subject of a radio address on Saturday and a speech this afternoon. Analysts say its part of an attempt to rally a key segment of the president's political base at a time when he needs their support more than ever.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA reporting:

The White House says the president has not wavered in his support for a ban on same-sex marriage, and that he's speaking out on the issue now for one simple reason: to lend his backing for a vote coming this week in the U.S. Senate. The timing, insists Press Secretary Tony Snow, is not the product of a political calculation.

Secretary TONY SNOW (White House Press Secretary): This is an issue that is of concern, that the president is making his views known on. But I, you know, I think we ought to be clear that the president is speaking out about a piece of legislation because he believes in it.

GONYEA: Still, polls show Americans don't consider banning same-sex marriage very important. The Gallup Poll's Frank Newport says the issue barely registers in polling he's done, including in recent days.

Mr. FRANK NEWPORT (Executive Editor, Gallup Poll): Almost no one - literally, almost no one mentions gay rights or homosexuality or a family amendment to the Constitution. Literally, three people out of the thousand we interviewed mentioned that. Everyone, regardless of political stripe - Republican, Independent, and Democrat - tells us they're concerned about the war in Iraq, they're concerned about economic issues, the price of gasoline, and immigration more recently. But nobody says, at least top of mind, this is a priority.

GONYEA: But Newport adds the president's current low public approval ratings do give him plenty of incentive to talk about same-sex marriage, because it is important to religious conservatives who have been among his strongest supporters.

A month ago, the president's approval rating hit an all-time low of 31 percent in the Gallup Poll, as support even from formerly loyal Republicans started to erode. Now, in a brand new poll, Newport says that decline has been halted, and - thanks to suddenly stronger support from Republicans - the president's overall approval rating is up five points to 36 percent.

Still, even as the president reaches out to social conservatives on the issue of same-sex marriage, he continues to face criticism on other issues from others within his core group of supporters.

John Green is a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Mr. JOHN GREEN (Senior Fellow, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life): The so-called Republican base is made up of distinct groups of people. And in recent times, the president has managed to anger a number of people in his base, particularly over the immigration issue. There's also some concern over the unbalanced budget, some fiscal conservatives are unhappy with the president. And then, of course, there are the social issue conservatives as well. Now, these are not entirely distinct groups. They do overlap with each other to some extent.

GONYEA: Green says the White House seems to have made the calculation that there's no political risk in promoting a same-sex marriage ban, in that conservatives who don't support him on this won't abandon him because of it. And that those who do disagree with him strongly on this are unlikely to ever support him, anyway.

Further, Green says, gay marriage is just the kind of issue to give activists something to take to voters as they go to work in this November's mid-term elections.

Mr. GREEN: It shows that the Republican Party keeps its promises on social issues. It also shows that this is a topic that they care about. But it also gives them, these activists, something to work with. They can then go out in the fall campaign and work hard to mobilize religious voters on the basis of this issue.

GONYEA: And that, he says, can be a significant force during a campaign year, as was demonstrated in 2004 when the president narrowly won re-election with help from social conservatives motivated by this very issue.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

SIEGEL: And you can see where each state stands on the issue of same-sex marriage with an interactive map at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: A traveling exhibit recalls the glory days of the negro leagues, that story and a month-long celebration for accordion aficionados just ahead on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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