In a campaign consumed with Vietnam War records and elusive weapons of mass destruction, the candidates have so far tiptoed around the season's touchiest wedge issue: gay marriage. Though advisers to George W. Bush hinted that the president would soon throw his support behind an amendment to the U.S. Constitution limiting marriage to the union of one man and one woman, he has yet to do so. And John Kerry hasn't been eager to detail his more nuanced stance against both gay marriage and any constitutional effort to ban it. The issue holds dangers for both sides. While Bush could rally his conservative base by backing an amendment, he doesn't want to alienate moderate voters by seeming mean-spirited. Kerry wants to stake out middle ground without seeming like another out-of-step Massachusetts liberal. Yet with grass-roots activists across the country ratcheting up the volume last week, the candidates may be dragged into the center of the latest cultural battle sooner than they'd like.
Activists on both sides are launching guerrilla strikes. Conservatives have railed against same-sex marriage on talk radio and e-mail networks for months. Now they're lobbying in statehouses across the country. In San Francisco, hundreds of gay couples raced to impromptu weddings on the steps of city hall's ornate rotunda, where Mayor Gavin Newsom defiantly began issuing same-sex licenses in apparent violation of California law. "I don't accept that I'm breaking the law," Newsom told NEWSWEEK. "This is about not allowing discrimination." In Massachusetts last week, foes of gay marriage scrambled to pass a constitutional ban. They failed but will try again next month. And in the most audacious surprise attack yet, a new Web site targeted Mary Cheney, the openly lesbian daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney. Within an hour of its launch, DearMary.com attracted 100 emotional letters pleading with her to weigh in against a constitutional amendment. "Where is your courage, Mary?" asked one. "Your community needs you to voice your dissent."
As director of vice presidential operations for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, Mary Cheney makes an inviting target. In 2000 the Cheney family insisted that Mary was a private citizen and off-limits to the press. Even so, her presence seemed to bolster the "compassionate conservative" image the Bush-Cheney ticket hoped to portray. After her father became veep, Mary joined the gay-friendly Republican Unity Coalition and gave speeches encouraging the GOP to reach out to women, minorities and gays. "We can make sexual orientation a nonissue for the Republican Party, and we can help achieve equality for all gay and lesbian Americans," she said in an April 2002 statement. But when she joined the '04 campaign last year, Mary quit the coalition and seemed to fade into her own undisclosed location.
Now that Mary, 34, is a senior campaign official, the Web site hopes to shame her back into the spotlight. Still, the effort's ultimate target isn't Mary but her dad's boss. (The Bush-Cheney campaign declined to comment.) Though Dick Cheney at one time seemed sympathetic to gay unions--in a 2000 debate with Joe Lieberman he said the issue should be left to the states--last month he said he would support "whatever decision" Bush makes. "I think the American people deserve to know he is willing to sell out his daughter for votes. It says something about his character," says John Aravosis, a Washington, D.C., political consultant who founded the site along with Los Angeles activist Robin Tyler. The two have a solid track record: in 2000 they helped force conservative talk- show host Dr. Laura Schlesinger off television with a similar campaign.
This week they plan an e-mail ad picturing Mary's face on a milk carton. have you seen me? it asks, noting that she's been "silent since her father endorsed anti-gay constitutional amendment making her and millions of Americans second-class citizens." Says Aravosis: "I think Mary is our last best hope to stopping this amendment." Even if last week's skirmishes turn out to be more symbolism than substance--it's doubtful the California marriages will hold up in court--they're proof that gay marriage is nudging its way onto the campaign trail.