President George Bush is seizing on a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling this week offering full marriage rights to gays and lesbians in hopes of galvanising the dispirited conservative base of the Republican Party just 10 days from crucial mid-term congressional elections in the United States.
Ripple effects of the ruling, delivered on Wednesday, were being felt in election battlegrounds all across the country yesterday with several independent analysts predicting that it may have given an unexpected boost to many struggling Republican candidates and change the outcome of several key races.
Within hours of the ruling, Mr Bush signalled his intention to highlight the issue during a campaign visit to Iowa. Bringing up the subject unprompted by anyone, he declared: "Yesterday in New Jersey, we had another activist court issue a ruling that raises doubts about the institution of marriage." Reminding voters of his position that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, President Bush added: "I believe it's a sacred institution that is critical to the health of our society and the well-being of families and it must be defended."
Earlier this year, Mr Bush abandoned attempts to force a constitutional amendment through Congress blocking gay marriage because it was falling short of the necessary two-thirds majority.
Whereas gay marriage and family values were centre-stage in the 2004 presidential contest, they had largely faded from view in this campaign season, replaced by deep popular discontent with Mr Bush and in particular the relentless bad news coming from Iraq. The re-emergence of the gay marriage question gives Republicans a chance to change the focus. "Hot button social issues have come alive again. The Iraq issue had taken away from the social issues that religious conservatives wanted to focus on," said Scott Keeter, research director at the PEW Research Center. "This decision at least gives them a news hook to restart that discussion."
It could lift the heavy gloom that has settled over the White House in recent weeks as even leading members of the Republican Party have acknowledged that a voter rebellion on 7 November could rob the party of control of the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate as well, a sea-change that would put a crimp on Mr Bush in the last two years of his second - and final - term.
It remains to be seen how successful the Republicans will be in directing the spotlight away from Iraq. But Republicans are clearly hoping the ruling will help motivate evangelical Christian supporters to go to the polls in 10 days' time. Turn-out is likely to prove vital to each party's prospects.
"The justices have unwittingly come to the luckless GOP's aid; they may have just influenced several key mid-term races in a way no fund-raising visit from Bush, Cheney, Giuliani, Hastert, McCain, Mehlman, or Rove could have," commented Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. He added that it "could not have come at a worse time for Democrats all across the country".
Virginia is one state where the impact of the ruling could be felt, with the incumbent Republican senator, George Allen, apparently stumbling in his effort to stave of his Democrat challenger Jim Webb. Virginia is also one of eight states that have constitutional amendments on the 7 November ballot to ban gay marriage. Similar amendments blocking gay marriage have already been passed in another 20 states.
In 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Court issued a ruling that forced the state to allow gay marriage. It was a huge step forward for gay-rights activists but helped to ensure that the issue was at the fore in the 2004 campaign. Today, Massachusetts remains the only state in the union that allows gays and lesbians to wed. However, couples must be resident in the state to gain a marriage licence. Vermont and California, meanwhile, have laws permitting civil unions between gays and lesbians but not full marriage.
In the case of New Jersey, the justices agreed that the final decision on whether to allow gay marriages should be left to the state legislature. Nonetheless, it will allow Mr Bush to unleash his invective at what he calls "activist judges" whom he accuses of trying to rewrite America's social conventions.
The justices this week made no provision for a residency requirement, implying that gay couples from anywhere in the United States would be free to travel to New Jersey to tie the knot. It is a loophole that could open the gates to a flood of legal challenges to existing laws all across the country, as gay couples marry in New Jersey and seek recognition of their union on returning to their own states.Reuse content