Gay and lesbian advocates have been doing some soul-searching since President Bush's (search) election victory, wondering if same-sex wedding marches through San Francisco and Massachusetts tipped the scales to Republicans promising to restore traditional values.

Exit polling showed "moral values" were at the top of voters' concerns, especially in the 11 states where voters banned same-sex marriage (search) — ballot amendments inspired by the parade of weddings.

"I think it hurt," said Rep. Barney Frank (search), an openly gay Democrat from Massachusetts, the state that set off the firestorm last November when its high court ruled that gay couples have the right to wed.

Frank is among many political observers who credit the anti-gay marriage amendments with giving the president's conservative base a reason to go to the polls in crucial battleground states like Ohio.

"It gives them a position to rally around," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who once served as San Francisco's mayor. "That whole issue has been too much, too fast, too soon. People aren't ready for it."

Crunching the numbers, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force denies that gay marriage alone boosted turnout among evangelical Christians in Oregon, Ohio and Michigan, the three swing states where constitutional amendments were on the ballot. Bush voters also were motivated by the president's stands on abstinence-only sex education and a ban on late term abortions, said Matthew Foreman, the group's executive director.

"It's sickening and fascinating that when one in five voters said 'moral values" was the most important issue for them, pundits immediately equated that with gay marriage alone," Foreman said. "To pin all of this on 'the gays' is wrong."

The Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, the nation's largest gay and lesbian political action committee, noted that voters in several states Bush won, including Idaho and North Carolina, elected the first openly gay candidates to their state Legislatures. In Oregon, where an amendment banning gay marriage was passed, voters sent an openly gay judge to the Oregon Supreme Court.

"To scapegoat people for having the audacity to ask for equality is outrageous," said Geoffrey Kors, executive director of Equality California, the state's largest gay rights lobbying group.

Frank believes San Francisco's 4,000 same-sex weddings, which were later found to violate state law, were more damaging than Massachusetts' court-sanctioned nuptials.

"Obviously, we paid some price for what we did in Massachusetts," Frank said. "I'm willing to pay a price for a real gain. I wasn't willing to pay a price for a lot of hoopla that didn't accomplish anything."

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (search) won't entertain the notion that his sanctioning of gay marriage is to blame. If anyone wants a scapegoat for John Kerry's loss, he said, they'd be better off looking to Usama bin Laden's latest taped missive to the American people.

"If everyone wants to blame me, I'll accept the blame," the 37-year-old Democrat said with sarcasm. "Maybe I'll blame myself as well and I'll have some closure."

Kors, of Equality California, blames Democrats for failing to campaign with its own definition of moral values.

"There was never any attempt to counter the minority, right-wing religious morality that Bush was preaching with morality about equality and being in a country that welcomes and embraces diversity and is based on freedom of religion and freedom of beliefs," Kors said.

Activists struggled to put the best face possible on the outcome by stressing that San Francisco and Massachusetts put a human face on same-sex marriage, and built support for granting gays and lesbians other legal rights short of matrimony.

But outside these liberal bastions, they also noted that the matter is a lot less clear-cut.

"It is a legitimate question to examine whether some of the tactics that we have used have played a role in promoting a bigger backlash," said Lorri Jean, executive director of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center.

"We didn't have control over what Gavin Newsom did, but we totally supported it," she said. "Would there have been a smarter, more strategic way? I don't know."