WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- In this year's GOP television campaign ads, newlyweds' radiant faces may replace the menacing hulk of released murderer Willie Horton, who was the bogeyman in commercials that President Bush's father aired in 1988 to nail his Democratic opponent as soft on crime.
Recent nuptials for more than 3,300 homosexual couples in San Francisco combined with the approval by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court of gay marriages may give President Bush another four-year term.
Mr. Bush's approval ratings have been steadily drooping. A medley of factors account for this decline: mounting evidence that he wasn't telling the truth when he used weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion of Iraq, the huge deficit in his latest budget, the unexplained gap in his military service and the dismal job picture for millions of unemployed Americans.
If the election were held today, polls show that Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry would win. North Carolina Sen. John Edwards also would have a reasonable shot at ousting the incumbent.
Many Democratic insiders are betting that a dynamic Kerry-Edwards ticket would clobber the tired twosome of Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. But these poll numbers fail to account for the possible consequences of legal machinations over gay marriages.
In Massachusetts, the legislature only has until mid-May to reverse the court decision that homosexual marriages are legal under the state constitution's equal protection clause.
Bay State legislators tried to modify the decision by approving "civil unions" -- that is, bestowing most economic and legal rights on gay partners but stopping short of recognizing their marriage. The court nixed this attempted end-run of its decision.
The U.S. Constitution requires that, in general, all states honor marriages, divorces and other official acts performed in any of the 50 states. Thus, if the Massachusetts court decision stands, a gay couple in Baltimore could tie the knot in Boston -- with the hope that Maryland officials would recognize their marital status. Every time a state refuses to honor such a marriage, court challenges and newspaper coverage would ensue.
Regardless of the outcome on the two coasts, Republican congressmen are crafting a constitutional ban on gay marriages. For approval, a proposed amendment must obtain a two-thirds vote in both the 435-member House of Representatives and the 100-seat Senate. Then three-fourths of the states must agree.
The amendment debate will coincide with this fall's presidential race and could eclipse unemployment, foreign policy and health care to become the sleeper issue of 2004.
Mr. Bush has wasted no time in propitiating the conservative Christian right. On Tuesday, the president, who had emphasized that he was deeply troubled by the redefinition of matrimony by "activist judges," threw his weight behind a constitutional prohibition on same-sex marriages.
"Ages of experience have taught humanity that the commitment of a husband and wife to love and to serve one another promotes the welfare of children and the stability of society," he averred. "Marriage cannot be severed from its cultural, religious and natural roots without weakening the good influence of society."
For their part, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards have opposed gay marriages. Instead, they have endorsed civil unions of the kind that exist in Vermont. If, however, Mr. Kerry emerges as the Democratic standard-bearer, the White House will identify him with liberal practices in his home state. Sixteen years ago, Mr. Bush's father, as the Republican presidential aspirant, used the infamous Willie Horton weekend-release ads to decry Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis' alleged leniency toward hard-core criminals.
The younger Mr. Bush's hard-line stance should enable him to pick up the 173 electoral votes in the South, where Bible-pounding preachers thunder against sodomy. Mr. Bush's anti-gay position will also resonate in the conservative Midwest (115 electoral votes) and in some enclaves of the Rocky Mountains (21 electoral votes). All told, the South, the Midwest and the Rocky Mountain states supply well more than the 270 electoral votes needed to capture the White House.
Mean-spirited gay bashing would alienate homosexual Republicans, suburban moderates and libertarians. Ever the compassionate conservative, Mr. Bush will emphasize his commitment to "traditional values," while surrogates take aim at homosexuals.
On Feb. 18, soft-spoken first lady Laura Bush, who sometimes serves as her husband's flak jacket, called gay marriages "a very, very shocking issue" for some people.
Don't expect to see the revolving prison doors in political TV ads this fall. Instead, look for scenes of same-sex couples kissing at the altar while a deep-throated announcer intones: "Unlike John Kerry, President Bush wants to restore marriage as our parents knew it, even if it means changing the Constitution."
George W. Grayson teaches government at the College of William & Mary.