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Activists Make Last Pitch on Gay Ban

Groups on both sides of controversial issue are waging an intense campaign to sway the public and president, who is likely to adopt a compromise `don't ask, don't tell' plan

THE commercial opens with scenes of soldiers in combat. Then the gay march on Washington flashes on the screen. An ominous voice-over intones: "President Clinton's plan to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military threatens our armed forces. The military cannot oppose a plan supported by their commander in chief - only Congress can, and you need to let Congress know how you feel."

At the end, there is a 900-number viewers can call, for $1.95 a minute, to add their names to a petition calling for keeping the ban on gay soldiers. So far, 50,000 people have dialed the number, which is sponsored by the conservative American Security Council in Washington. Another 200,000 people have responded to the group's $1.25 million direct-mail campaign.

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Even as the armed services wait for Mr. Clinton's decision on how, and whether, to lift the ban on gays in the military, groups on both sides of the issue have been waging a public-relations campaign to influence the outcome. Despite the intense advocacy, neither side may be very happy with the president's decision.

As early as today, Defense Secretary Les Aspin reportedly will recommend to the president some form of a "don't ask, don't tell" policy under which homosexual soldiers would be allowed to serve as long as they don't "publicly" declare their sexual orientation. The details of the plan have not been announced yet, but already activists from both the right and left are lining up to snipe at the proposals.

"If it means that individual service members can't acknowledge that they're gay, that's not acceptable," says Thomas Stoddard, head of the Campaign for Military Service, a coalition of gay and civil-rights groups opposed to the ban.

"Aspin and company want a compromise. We want nothing short of don't lift the ban. Make it law. We believe the military has to ask the question [about recruits' orientation] up front," says retired Gen. Tony Bershnick, president of the Defense Readiness Council, a retired-officers group that wants to keep the ban.

Even if they aren't overjoyed with the compromise, advocacy groups may be forced to accept a "don't ask, don't tell" plan. Congress, which could override an executive order, is about as likely to back the gay lobby's desire to lift the ban altogether as it is to vote itself a pay cut.

On the other side of the issue, 216 lawmakers in the House and 41 in the Senate oppose lifting the ban. But some may wind up backing Clinton's compromise, especially if it is endorsed by Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"If Powell says the solution is acceptable, we [in Congress] will do nothing," predicts Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado. "But if Powell says this is a crummy compromise, action will occur."

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Still, ban supporters can claim victory if a "don't ask, don't tell" plan is adopted. In January, Clinton wanted to drop the gay ban entirely, but was deterred by a vociferous, and apparently spontaneous, public outcry. Since then, supporters of the ban have organized pressure groups to keep the heat on the administration and Congress.

At the forefront of the conservative lobbying effort have been the American Security Council and the Defense Readiness Council, two groups in which retired Adm. Thomas Moorer, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, plays a key role. John Fisher, president of the Security Council, says his organization is spending $1 million to run three keep-the-ban commercials on 125 TV stations and 1,000 radio outlets nationwide. For its part, the Defense Readiness Council has organized studies, videotapes, and congressional visits by retired military officers to support the ban.

Christian Right groups also have been lobbying for the ban. The Christian Action Network, for example, is spending $30,000 to air a keep-the-ban commercial on three evangelical cable TV networks, according to Martin Mawyer, president of the Forest, Va.-based group.

Gay-rights groups recently have begun to adopt some of the tactics used by their opponents. On Memorial Day, the Campaign for Military Service aired two drop-the-ban television commercials on the Cable News Network. The group also delivered 100,000 postcards to Capitol Hill on Monday. Legislative coordinator Tom Sheridan says the campaign hopes to spend $1 million to $2 million on its efforts, although it has raised substantially less than that to date.

It may be too little, too late. "Lobbying by gays has increased recently, but it's not enough to offset the other side," says Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat who is openly gay. "Some right-wing groups have done a better job of mobilizing their supporters than groups who are in favor of lifting the ban. It's harder than I thought to get [gays] to become lobbyists."

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