WASHINGTON -- Patrick J. Buchanan's televised denunciation of homosexual rights Monday night during the Republican National Convention was the clearest signal yet that the GOP intends to use that issue against Bill Clinton.
But it's unclear how effective it will be against the Arkansas governor, who favors ending a Bush administration ban on gays serving in the military and strongly opposes discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Mr. Buchanan, who challenged Mr. Bush in the primaries, brought up homosexuality again and again in his speech, saying at one point, "we stand with" Mr. Bush "against the amoral idea that gay and lesbian couples should have the same standing in law as married men and women."
In another reference, he asserted that a "militant leader of the homosexual rights movement" has termed Mr. Clinton and running mate Albert Gore, Jr., "the most pro-lesbian and pro-gay ticket in history."
In a third reference, he said Mr. Clinton and his wife, Hillary, "would impose on America" an agenda that includes "homosexual rights."
Two prominent public opinion experts, Gallup Poll managing editor Larry Hugick and GOP pollster Neil Newhouse, expressed doubt yesterday that Mr. Clinton's views on gay rights would themselves significantly affect voter decisions.
"I'm not sure if it would be a plus or a minus for Republicans to go after Clinton on that issue," Mr. Hugick said.
"The downside is that there's a fair number of well-educated, socially-tolerant, baby boom voters who have been voting Republican for president who don't like the conservative social agenda, and [this issue is] reminding them of the conservative social agenda."
A Gallup Poll done for Cable News Network and USA Today last week found that 50 percent of Americans believe Mr. Clinton's position on gay rights has "been about right." Twenty-seven percent said they thought he has "gone too far in supporting equal rights for homosexuals," while 5 percent said he has not gone "far enough" and 18 percent had no opinion.
Mr. Newhouse said that although Americans generally have a "predisposed bias against" expansion of gay rights, that issue alone won't determine voters' decisions. "But if it can be used along with other issues to indicate that Governor Clinton has gone off the deep end, then it can be an effective weapon," he said.
Some Republicans intend to find out.
Even before Mr. Buchanan spoke in Houston, top Bush-Quayle campaign strategist Charles Black suggested the issue would be brought up in Texas, a state the Republicans need to win.
Referring to Mr. Clinton, Mr. Black told the Dallas Morning News last week, "There might even be some interest in Texas of his endorsement of the gay-rights agenda."
But that statement and Mr. Buchanan's comments distorted the Democratic nominee's position. While Mr. Clinton has been more adamant than previous presidential nominees on the issue of discrimination based on sexual orientation, he has not endorsed the concept of marriage between persons of the same sex -- an issue Mr. Buchanan nevertheless raised in his speech criticizing Mr. Clinton and the Democrats.
Mr. Clinton is "on record opposing gay marriages," said Gregory King, communications director of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, which he says is the largest lesbian and gay political organization, with 50,000 members.
Mr. King's organization denounced Mr. Buchanan's speech in a press release, and called on President Bush to reject "Pat Buchanan's politics of bigotry and hatred."
The fund supports the Democratic ticket because of "their understanding of AIDS and their willingness to put it at the top of the health agenda and their opposition to discrimination against any American," Mr. King said.
Though Mr. Bush has expressed opposition to discrimination based on sexual orientation -- and been criticized by conservative Christian groups -- Mr. King said he has not done enough about AIDS, has "tolerated intolerance and has cast his lot with the most extreme bigots in America."
Mr. King was especially critical of Mr. Bush for not rejecting the party platform, which states: "We oppose efforts . . . to include sexual preference as a protected minority receiving preferential status under civil rights statutes at the federal, state and local level. . . . We oppose any legislation or law which legally recognizes same-sex marriages and allows such couples to adopt children or provide foster care."
The GOP platform led 50 of the 6,000 organized gay Republicans nationwide to hold their own convention in Houston last weekend, to decide not to endorse Mr. Bush and to announce formation of a fund-raising organization that will assist pro-gay Republican candidates.
"They have to realize there's a downside to bashing gay people in the Republican Party," Rich Tafel, president of the National Federation of Log Cabin Clubs, an organization of gay and lesbian Republicans, told Knight-Ridder newspapers.
In contrast, the Democratic platform declares opposition to "discrimination or deprivation of rights" on the basis of sexual orientation and vows to "provide civil rights protection for gay men and lesbians and an end to Defense Department discrimination."
Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Ginny Terzano also criticized Mr. Buchanan. "That speech last night was just incredible in the insensitivity, in the type of fear that he was trying to instill in Americans," she said, predicting, "Voters as a whole are not going to tolerate it."