WASHINGTON -- Prominent gay rights groups are ready to issue an election-year pass to Democratic presidential front-runner John Kerry even though he opposes same-sex marriage, settling for less than they want in hopes of avoiding a constitutional amendment they fear.
"It's always disappointing when we find elected officials or candidates who do not support us 100 percent," said Winnie Stachelberg, political director of the Human Rights Campaign.
"But we understand that people are on a journey of becoming more understanding and more supportive of all that affects the gay and lesbian community."
Democrats have aggressively courted gay voters and their campaign donations in recent years. Exit polls showed Al Gore got 75 percent of the votes cast by self-identified gays and lesbians in 2000, compared to 25 percent for Bush.
Both Kerry and his remaining major rival, Sen. John Edwards, criticized Bush on Tuesday when he called for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages. At the same time, the two men were quick to reiterate their opposition to gay marriage -- a view widely shared in the country, according to numerous polls.
Matt Foreman, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said he has heard little or no complaining from gay rights supporters about attempts by Kerry or Edwards to finesse the same-sex marriage issue.
"The mortal danger that our community faces right now is not the battle to win the freedom to marry," Foreman said. "It's having the battle shut down by a constitutional amendment."
A separate constitutional debate is unfolding in Kerry's home state of Massachusetts, and it could yet pose problems for the presidential front-runner.
But for now, he and Edwards stress their support for civil unions and other measures short of marriage that would extend additional benefits to gay and lesbian couples.
These are steps that the Human Rights Campaign officially dismisses as half measures. "In short, civil unions are not separate but equal, they are separate and unequal," the group says on its Web site.
"And our society has tried separate before. It just doesn't work," it adds, an apparent reference to the discredited "separate but equal" doctrine of the pre-civil rights era.
Even with only 25 percent backing, Bush gained an estimated 1 million votes from gays in 2000, although it's unclear what the impact would be on his re-election campaign if many of those supporters deserted him.
Several states with large gay communities were strongly Democratic four years ago, including New York, California and Massachusetts, and pose formidable obstacles to Bush this time, too.
But even so, Patrick Guerriero, the executive director of the pro-gay Log Cabin Republicans, said the president's support of the amendment could prove politically costly. Guerriero said Bush could rekindle past political cultural wars and give independent voters cause to wonder "whether or not the president and the party have embraced a creepy social agenda."
"You can hear the echoes of Pat Buchanan's speech in Houston," he said, a reference to the unsuccessful Republican candidate in 1992, who delivered a combatively conservative speech on the opening night of the party convention that said America confronted a cultural war, with gay rights one of the key battles.
Republican strategists later concluded that the speech was politically costly because it conveyed an image of intolerance.
At the same time, said Guerriero, recent events have "led to something that we had hoped to avoid, which is a cultural war in the midst of a presidential election."
With a Massachusetts court ruling and San Francisco issuing gay marriage licenses for the first time, public opinion surveys show that support for gay marriage is a losing issue politically. It's a consistent finding that poses a challenge to groups that support it as well as to candidates seeking their backing.
A nationwide CNN poll completed earlier this month found that by a margin of 64 percent to 32 percent, those surveyed said gay marriages should not be recognized in law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages.
Given the environment, politically active gay supporters are willing to refrain from imposing a litmus test on Kerry or Edwards.
"This issue has escalated so dramatically in such a short period of time that the question now has to be whether you are for equal rights for gay people or you're not," Foreman said.
"But having said that, the positions of the Democratic candidates on the issues that are key to our community are so much better on every single one of them than President Bush," he added.
"We're not happy to know that Kerry doesn't support gay marriage," said Arline Isaacson, co-chairman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. "On the other hand, we're realistic enough to know that none of the front-runners supports gay marriage."
The political calculations could yet turn in Massachusetts, where the state's highest court has ruled that gay couples are entitled under the state constitution to marry.
Lawmakers have countered by proposing a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Kerry has left the door open to supporting the amendment, depending on whether it is accompanied by civil union and other provisions.