WASHINGTON – Gay marriage (search) may be drawing protesters by the hundreds, the attention of courts in Massachusetts and California, and the scrutiny of President Bush, but the nation's governors officially ignored it at their meeting on the top issues facing the states.
Democratic governors see it either as a distraction from the failures of President Bush or a wedge issue that the GOP can use to rally conservative voters in the fall, and insist the matter should be dropped. "Let's stay focused on jobs," Bob Holden of Missouri said Monday.
The topic isn't high on the agenda for many Republicans, either. But some GOP governors believe it undermines moral values in the country, and view that as a factor that could help GOP chances in the fall elections.
"It grieves me that we even have to think it would be necessary to pass a constitutional amendment (search) to define marriage as between a man and a woman," said Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas. "It never occurred to me that we would have states that would define marriage in a way that has no historical precedent ever, none."
Bush pushed the issue further to the forefront of the nation's consciousness Tuesday, announcing that he was embracing a move to amend the Constitution to prohibit such marriages.
"After more than two centuries of American jurisprudence and millennia of human experience, a few judges and local authorities are presuming to change the most fundamental institution of civilization," the president said in urging Congress to approve such an amendment. "Their action has created confusion on an issue that requires clarity."
Huckabee and several other Southern or conservative GOP governors expressed strong support for an amendment and decried what they saw as activist judges and mayors challenging the laws that they are supposed to uphold. Thirty-eight states have passed laws barring gay marriage.
The issue has leapt ahead in the public debate, as the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (search) ruled this month that anything less than full-fledged marriage for gays in Massachusetts would be unconstitutional. Since then, San Francisco officials have begun performing same-sex marriages and have challenged their state law barring such unions.
Those unnerved by the changes say that if one state makes such marriages legal, other states would have to recognize it.
"It looks like the federal government is going to have to step in in order to protect state law," said Republican Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi. Those that support it, he said, are "180 degrees apart from the American people" and said voters should examine the records of the Democratic presidential candidates on the issue."
Bush has said that if judges force the issue, "the only alternative left to the people would be the constitutional process," Barbour added.
Democrats just want the questions to go away.
"As I travel my state, people want to know where the next job is going to come from. `Are my children being well educated?"' said Iowa Gov.Tom Vilsack, a Democrat. "Those are the issues that people address to me."
Gay marriage? He doesn't hear about it, Vilsack said in comments echoed by many other Democrats.
"It's not an issue in my state," said Gov. Jennifer Granholm of Michigan. "I'm certain the Republicans want this as an issue. There will be an attempt to make it an issue, a wedge issue."
The GOP has looked at it, and seen that for some voters who are deeply upset about efforts to make these marriages legal, the issue is important enough for them to get out and vote, according to Bill McInturff, a GOP pollster who briefed a meeting of the Republican Governors Association over the weekend.
"This is going to be a part of the 2004 campaign," McInturff said.
In Massachusetts, Republican Gov. Mitt Romney has written newspaper editorials against sanctioning gay marriages and said legal protections for homosexuals and singles go far enough.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, ordered the state attorney general to go to the courts to stop what he called "an imminent risk to civil order." Peppered with questions about the marriages on Monday, he said he supported laws on domestic partnership, but no further.
"I believe in equal rights. And that's where I stay," Schwarzenegger said.
The governors are in Washington for four days of discussions at the annual meeting of the National Governors Association (search).