To hear President Bush and many Republicans say it, they're not opposed to gay marriage so much as eager to prevent judges — routinely described as unelected and activist — from weakening one of civilization's most enduring institutions.

It's a political straddle in the making, designed to maximize election-year support among conservatives without offending moderate voters wary of any taint of intolerance.

"Gay bashing, plain and simple," was how Sen. Frank Lautenberg (search), D-N.J., this week described a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, unwilling to let the measure's supporters define it in their own terms.

"Activist judges and local officials in some parts of the country are not letting up in their efforts to redefine marriage for the rest of America," Bush countered. "And neither should defenders of traditional marriage flag in their efforts."

While the early legislative returns are in — the amendment went down to a decisive defeat in the Senate — Republican strategists hope they have laid the foundation for success in November.

"Four million religious conservative voters sat out the last election, so the president's visible stance on protecting marriage is essential to turning out all of those conservative voters who pulled the lever for him in 2000 and getting those other 4 million to come out for him this year," said Keith Appell, a conservative strategist in Washington.

Other Republicans say they hope the issue helps Bush with low- and middle-income social conservatives, with Catholics and others, particularly in battleground states such as Ohio and Michigan.

Republicans also note that some black ministers are among the amendment's supporters.

"I think it's being used as a wedge issue," said Alexis Herman, a black former labor secretary who is now an adviser to Bush's Democratic presidential opponent, Sen. John Kerry (search) of Massachusetts.

Kerry and other Democrats also call the issue a political distraction, an attempt to divert attention from the economy and the war in Iraq.

"The unfortunate result is that the important work of the American people funding our homeland security needs, creating new and better jobs and raising the minimum wage is not getting done," said the Democratic presidential nominee-in-waiting.

Whatever it is, the gay marriage issue has surfaced in a handful of congressional races, in South Dakota, Florida and elsewhere, and may emerge elsewhere.

Beyond that, opponents of gay marriage are working to force votes in more than a dozen states this November on proposed state constitutional amendments. The list includes Michigan, Ohio and Oregon, all presidential swing states.

The debate is occurring within the context of a broader campaign conflict over social issues.

But abortion and gun control have been campaign perennials.

Gay marriage emerged as a political issue over the winter after San Francisco began issuing licenses to same-sex couples and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled the state constitution mandates full, equal marriage rights for gay couples.

Kerry, has worked hard to reassure voters who disagree with him on social issues. An advocate of gun control, he's been photographed with a hunting rifle in hand.

A career-long supporter of abortion rights, he's said he might appoint judges to the bench who don't share his view on the subject.

Like Bush, he's doing something of a straddle on gay marriage.

He opposes the gay marriage amendment but says he's against gay marriage itself.

A campaign spokeswoman, Stephanie Cutter, says that if Kerry's home state comes up with a constitutional provision that outlaws gay marriage but protects equal rights and benefits for same-sex couples, he would support that.

To the disappointment of GOP strategists who had hoped to force him to cast a vote, Kerry was absent in the Senate this week for what his campaign aides described as a procedural roll call.

Instead, he issued a statement that criticized Republicans for bringing the issue to a vote. He added, "When I am president, I will work to bring the nation together and build a stronger America."

That was a charge that the Republicans were attempting to divide the country.

If Republicans are nervous about that, it's out of concern that they can be depicted as intolerant.

"What they do in the privacy of their house, consenting adults should be able to do," Bush said earlier this week.

The same concern is evident in South Dakota, where Republican senatorial candidate John Thune has been airing radio commercials supporting the amendment that his opponent, Sen. Tom Daschle, voted against.

"This constitutional amendment won't take away anyone's rights," Thune says reassuringly in the ad. "Not a single one."