High court affirmation of privacy rights and newly legalized homosexual marriage in Canada are energizing the issue.
In the blink of an eye, reaction to last week's Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay sexual conduct has morphed into an impassioned debate over the concept of same-sex marriage - and whether that now stands as a possibility on the legal horizon.
The high court's majority did not address gay marriage. But in his angry dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia raised the possibility that that could be coming. Gay rights advocates and social conservatives agree, infusing a burst of energy into the "culture war" that Justice Scalia referred to, and putting politicians on the defensive. "What's your position on gay marriage?" will now be a standard stump question for candidates of all parties.
The issue is especially tricky for the Republican Party. As President Bush tries to broaden his support heading into an election year, he now faces the fury of his social conservative base for not speaking in defense of "family values" over the Texas sodomy case.
"Their silence in the case was deafening," says Gary Bauer, president of the group American Values, who complains that the White House didn't file a legal brief on the case. "The administration has been AWOL on issues related to this dispute, and I don't think they can maintain their studious silence as the battle over the definition of marriage heats up."
The Bush White House is likely surmising that these voters have nowhere to go, and so the president - himself a born-again Christian - can afford their pique, say social conservative activists. After all, Bush has been a strong advocate for their position on abortion, judicial nominees, tax cuts, and the Middle East. Still, they resent feeling taken for granted on an issue that, to them, cuts to the heart of the nation's moral identity - the sanctity of marriage as a male-female institution.
"Bush has a great reservoir of goodwill with the Christian right," says John Green, a political analyst at the University of Akron. "This issue, if mishandled, could reduce that reservoir substantially, but wouldn't eliminate it."
Professor Green suggests ways Bush could finesse the issue. The White House can reassure social conservative leaders quietly behind the scenes. The president can also, at some point, deliver a speech on marriage and make clear he means men and women. But some social conservative activists see no room for nuance. "You can't finesse issues that are this divisive and this morally based," says Peter LaBarbera, a senior policy analyst at the Culture and Family Institute in Washington.