Comment: Gay rights may not swing US voters in White House race

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One never knows what to expect in American presidential politics.

Already during the 2008 race for the White House, Hillary Clinton has been asked whether she is a lesbian, John Edwards has been labelled a faggot, and Bill Richardson has himself declared homosexuality a choice. That’s just the pro-gay Democrats.

On the considerably less friendly Republican side, opponents of Rudy Giuliani have publicised videotapes of him in full drag regalia, opponents of Mitt Romney have posted videotapes of him expressing strong support for gay civil rights, and opponents of Sam Brownback have created a musical video claiming he wants to put gays in jail.

When Hillary Clinton appeared on five political talk shows one recent Sunday in September, many pundits suggested it was akin to taking a victory lap, that she has all but sewn up the Democratic Party’s nomination for President in 2008.

And given how poorly the Republican Party sits with Americans these days, mostly because of the Republican President’s war in Iraq, some pundits suggest the only real race for 2008 is the one for the Democratic nomination.

History has proven such early predictions to be dicey business.

In the last U.S. Presidential campaign in 2004 Howard Dean led the field of Democrats and seemed on course for the nomination until his campaign faltered in the very first caucuses.

Reporters began to openly depict him as a raving lunatic. The eventual Democratic nominee, John Kerry, was at this stage of the race in September 2003 lagging near the back of the pack, in the single digits polling-wise.

But for gay voters at least, it can still be safely said that the only real race is that for the Democratic nomination.

There are no polls to point to, only indirect measures. Money to candidates from zip codes with well-known gay neighborhoods has, thus far, favoured Clinton.

Looking at those zip codes collectively, Clinton has garnered 48 percent, compared to Barack Obama with 39 percent and Edwards with 13 percent.

But Edwards continues to work hard to attract gay support. He has visited a gay community centre in Los Angeles, announced a plan for HIV prevention that includes “age-appropriate sex education” for young people, and readily acknowledges that his wife Elizabeth doesn’t agree with his opposition to gay marriage.

Barack Obama, while lacking in some of the deeply entrenched support from the gay community’s leadership, has won over a considerable crowd with his seemingly heartfelt empathy, as a black man, with the sting of discrimination that gays experience.

Just as important as how gays vote is the question of how big an issue gay-related matters will be in how mainstream America votes.

So far, it’s been fairly prominent, especially when one considers that issues such as the war in Iraq, immigration, and the lack of basic healthcare for every citizen are at the top of every list.

Questions about gay marriage have been posed to both Democrats and Republicans in a large number of the debates in which they have participated.

They are frequently asked on the campaign trail and in candidate interviews.

One new twist on the gay issues in the campaign emerged last month when, at a debate for Democratic candidates in New Hampshire, a reporter asked the top three polling contenders if they would be “comfortable” having a gay fairy tale read to their young children in school.

Edwards and Obama said yes; Clinton said should be left to “parental discretion.”

Conservative opponents of gays jumped on the answers, claiming that it showed how much Democrats try to curry favour with the gay community.

Several Republican candidates issued their own statements, touting how they felt it illustrated fundamental weakness in the Democratic Party.

For gays, however, it was another demonstration of why the Democratic Party offers the only real choice for most gays when it comes to electoral politics these days.

The Democratic takeover of both Houses of Congress and many state legislatures last November brought about enormous progress on gay issues during 2007.

First, it has prevented Republicans from driving anti-gay legislation through the legislatures. Second, it has enabled several state legislatures to consider and pass pro-gay legislation that has been pending for years. And third, it has enabled movement on pro-gay measures in Congress that had languished for years.

That has brought into stark relief how important it is to have a friend in the White House.

Both Houses of Congress have passed a bill to increase penalties for hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation.

The House did so in May, the Senate did so last month, as an attachment to a bill providing funds for continuing the war in Iraq.

But the White House has issued more than one statement saying Bush would likely veto it. It is widely expected he would veto the employment non-discrimination bill too.

A new book on the U.S. Supreme Court, released this month, predicts the next President will probably have the opportunity to appoint three new justices, an opportunity that a friendly Democrat could use to preserve the court’s tenuous balance, or that a Republican could use to swing the court to an unprecedented right-wing tilt.

Ultimately, what mainstream America thinks about its Presidential choices will likely stay focused on the war in Iraq, immigration, and health care.

A large national survey of voters found that social issues, such as gay marriage, matter only to a small percentage of voters: white evangelical Protestants.

The survey indicated that, while 55 percent of Americans still oppose equal rights in marriage for gay couples, only 38 percent believe a candidate’s position on gay marriage will be very important in their voting decisions.

Another poll last month found that 55 percent of voters would vote for a candidate even if that candidate did not agree with them on issues such as same-sex marriage.