WASHINGTON – Following the controversy caused by Sen. Rick Santorum's (R-Pa.) comments that seemed to equate homosexuals with adulterers and polygamists, Republicans say politicians backing gay rights may face trouble in the polls.
Richard White (search), a Republican state senator from Mississippi, said any candidate talking about gay rights might as well not even visit his state.
"The people down here, they are not going to put up with that kind of stuff," White said. "We're not prepared for all that in Mississippi or anywhere else in the southern states."
Conservatives are banking on that attitude when it comes to the Democratic presidential nomination. Several of the hopefuls, including Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, John Kerry of Massachusetts, Dick Gepahrdt of Missouri and Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, have backed a bill that would extend benefits to partners of gay federal employees. The latter three even co-sponsored the legislation.
But Republicans say former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search) has the biggest hurdle to clear when squaring his record on gay rights with more conservative voters. As governor, Dean passed the nation's only law giving gay partners the same legal rights as married couples.
"I don't think voters in Kentucky would be for that," said Darryl Tattrie, chief financial officer of the Kentucky Democratic Party, who says he personally supports civil unions. "It's the way folks are raised."
Dean openly touts signing the civil unions law, the anniversary of which is this weekend. And he said that voters' personal views combined with their specific circumstances undermines conservatives who think they can bank on anti-gay sentiment.
"It'll be harder in the South, but let's not forget that there are a lot of southern folks who are suffering in the Bush economy and who need better health care and better education for their kids, too," he said.
Still, Dean's gay rights stance may be too far to the left for many voters. Recent polls suggest the public is mixed on its views of homosexuality, with many taking the "love-the-sinner, hate-the-sin" approach Santorum conveyed.
A majority of voters have said in polls that while homosexuality should not be illegal, it is in fact immoral.
But Dean has campaigned on the goals of making civil unions legal at the federal level, extending rights to homosexual couples under tax law, immigration law and other federal policies and easing the military's "don't ask, don't tell" rule that allows gays to serve as long as they keep their sexual orientation private.
"It seems to me the fair thing to do, and I think most Americans are fair-minded," Dean said. "So I can't wait to engage the Republicans on that issue."
Dean has seen support from liberal audiences along the Democratic campaign trail, and supporters are celebrating the anniversary of the civil union law by hosting more than 50 fund-raisers across the country this Saturday. Dean is expected to teleconference into many of the events.
"I feel like most people. If they know anything about him, that's what they know," said 26-year-old Josh Kruskol, who is having 30 to 50 friends over Saturday night for wine, dessert and a pitch to support the Dean campaign.
Still, Republicans continue to use Dean's credentials against him, calling him "ultraliberal on civil unions." GOP operatives, as well as some Democrats, also say he is out of touch with voters in more conservative and southern states — ones that have demonstrated strong support for President Bush (search).
The Associated Press contributed to this report.