Candidates Mum On Gay Marriage Debate Both Barack Obama and John McCain have said little about gay marriage from the campaign trail, releasing only written statements when the California Supreme Court legalized it. For both, the topic is risky territory, where they have as much to lose as to gain.
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Candidates Mum On Gay Marriage Debate

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Candidates Mum On Gay Marriage Debate

Candidates Mum On Gay Marriage Debate

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Gay marriage is a topic that the presidential candidates do not address often. For both McCain and Obama, it's risky territory. NPR's Tovia Smith reports on the balancing act over same-sex marriage.

TOVIA SMITH: When gas prices were shooting through the $4 mark, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama were all over TV talking about it. When it comes to U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq, both candidates pounced on the issue. But when the Supreme Court of California legalized gay marriage, all that came from each campaign was a short, very carefully worded written statement.

DAVID DOMKE: We have two presidential candidates who both want nothing to do with this as a political issue. You know, they're certainly not holding press conferences about this.

SMITH: One reason, says University of Washington Professor David Domke, who writes about politics and religion, is that neither candidate has a totally clear-cut position on same-sex marriage. McCain supports a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in California but opposes a federal ban, and Obama offers congratulations to newlyweds in California, saying they deserve full equality, but he opposes gay marriage.

DOMKE: McCain's position is muddled; so is Obama's. Both of them have this nuanced on-the-one-hand-yet-on-the-other-hand need-to-explain-it kind of position, and I think that makes it difficult for either one of them to take a stand on that.

SMITH: Both candidates also have the difficult task of trying to appease their base, while also reaching out to the center.

Obama, for example, is trying to make a play for some evangelical Christians who traditionally vote Republican, but at the same time he needs to avoid alienating liberals. That presents a challenge, as it did here in a televised forum with gay rights advocate Joe Solmonese.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADCAST)

BARACK OBAMA: I would continue to support a civil union that provides all the benefits that are available for a legally sanctioned marriage.

JOE SOLMONESE: But can you see, to our community, where that comes across as sounding like separate but equal?

OBAMA: Well, look, I understand that, and I'm sympathetic to it, but my job as president is going to be to make sure that the legal rights that have consequences for loving same-sex couples are recognized and enforced.

SMITH: McCain skates a similarly fine line. He needs to reassure the conservative values voters who have publicly doubted his commitment on social issues, but he can't afford to scare away more moderate and independent voters, not an easy task.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE ELLEN DEGENERES SHOW")

ELLEN D: ...questions when we come back. I will be discussing with you California overturning the ban on gay marriage.

JOHN MCCAIN: I can hardly wait.

GENERES: Me too.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: When he does confront the issue, as he did on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," you could almost feel the tension.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE ELLEN DEGENERES SHOW")

MCCAIN: I just believe in the unique status of marriage between man and woman, and I know that we have a respectful disagreement on that issue.

GENERES: Mm-hmm.

DOUG HATTAWAY: You do find yourself, when you're trying to thread the needle on this, it sort of starts to get uncomfortable because of the logical dissidence in the positions.

SMITH: Political consultant Doug Hattaway has advised many Democrats on gay issues. He says candidates ought to steer of clear of gay marriage this year simply because it's relatively unimportant to voters.

HATTAWAY: Bottom line is I think both candidates feel a little squeezed. So the best approach is to talk about the economy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: We're starting to get a little far afield. That's okay, but I wanted to make sure that everybody knows that, you know, to the extent that we can focus on economics, that would be helpful.

SMITH: On the campaign trail, it's exactly what the candidates are doing.

DOMKE: In 2004, George W. Bush was changing the subject to gay marriage.

SMITH: Again, Professor David Domke.

DOMKE: This election, both candidates are changing the subject away from gay marriage.

SMITH: Domke says gay marriage won't have the kind of impact this year as it did in 2004, when the issue energized social conservatives and boosted President Bush in key battleground states such as Ohio.

But some on the right are determined to try. Tom McClusky with the Family Research Council says if McCain won't bring up gay marriage, conservatives will.

TOM MCCLUSKY: The senator so far has not been a candidate who motivates the grassroots, but these issues motivate the grassroots and will get the people in the churches and the people who care about these issues not only out there to vote but hopefully bringing their friends along.

SMITH: The question is whether gay marriage as an issue could ever be enough to close what analysts are calling the enthusiasm gap. Polls show Democrats and progressives are far more energized and excited to vote for Obama than Republicans and conservatives are to vote for McCain, and that passion may well drive more voters to the polls this November than gay marriage ever could. Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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