WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama sparked a burst of enthusiasm from Florida's gay and lesbian voters and a backlash from conservative Christians in May when he proclaimed unequivocal support for same-sex marriage.
Reverberations from that decision now are running through the presidential campaign in the state, setting up a clear choice between Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, a staunch proponent of traditional marriage.
This and related social issues have energized gay voter-registration drives in places such as Wilton Manors and also inspired door-to-door canvassing across the state by religious conservatives who have set aside their qualms about Romney.
Obama's earlier rejection of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy — clearing the way for legislation in 2010 to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces — had already widened a partisan divide over a range of social issues, notably abortion rights.
Catholic bishops are angry at a provision in the Affordable Care Act, as applied by the Obama administration, that requires large church-run institutions such as hospitals to cover contraception services if they provide health insurance to employees.
But, so far, same-sex marriage has gotten more attention in this year's campaign.
The marriage issue raises special concerns for roughly 1 million gay, lesbian or bisexual voters in Florida — many clustered in South and Central Florida — and for countless religious conservatives. Evangelical voters amounted to an estimated 40 percent of Republicans who turned out for Florida's presidential primary this year. The political impact extends to like-minded voters on both sides, including supportive friends and family members.
"It closed that enthusiasm gap," Ron Mills, 58, of Fort Lauderdale, campaign director of the GLBT (gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender) Democratic Caucus, said of Obama's recent statements and actions.
"I did the [Gay] Pride Parade this year, and we were in a truck with all the Obama people, which got lots of cheers. Two years ago it probably wouldn't have gotten as much," he added. "Would they have voted for Obama anyway? Probably. But it certainly helps build enthusiasm, and maybe they'll go talk to their neighbors next door."
Mills estimates that Obama won as much as 75 percent of Florida's GLBT vote when he carried Florida in 2008, and he predicted that the president could get 80 percent to 85 percent of their vote this year.
A gay Republican leader, Andy Eddy, 65, of Deerfield Beach, has a somewhat different prediction. He estimates that Romney will get at least 30 percent of Florida's gay and lesbian vote, about the same as GOP candidate John McCain received in 2008. Many gay voters are appalled by Obama's record on the economy and will remain loyal to Republicans, said Eddy, a board member of the Log Cabin Republicans of Broward County.
Eddy added, however, that the fervent resistance to gay marriage by religious groups that back Romney may have blocked an opportunity for Republicans to gain support this year.
"It may very well steer votes away, especially in a county like Broward that is heavily Democratic," he said.
The issue is important for reasons that go well beyond the symbolism and customs of marriage.
"Marriage itself affords other benefits that most people take for granted: child-visitation rights, inheritance issues, immigration issues, the ability to sponsor one's spouse so they can become an American citizen, tax breaks," said Justin Flippen, former vice mayor of Wilton Manors and a gay Democratic activist. "With the economy being what it is, it's unfair to tax gay and lesbian couples more than married couples. Those are issues that hit home."
At the same time, Obama's support for same-sex marriage has spurred conservative activists to safeguard what they see as traditional values.
"It has created additional motivation and a sense of urgency," said John Stemberger, president of the Orlando-based Florida Family Policy Council, a well-connected advocacy group for traditional marriage. "Both the parties and the candidates, with some exceptions, couldn't be farther apart in their positions on these issues."
Though he has not formally endorsed Romney, Stemberger said he has organized the largest campaign effort in the group's history, mustering 25 staff members and thousands of volunteers to canvass neighborhoods and operate phone banks. The group has held 37 conferences with 1,600 pastors and hosted rallies in Pensacola and Miami. Another rally is planned for Orlando.
In an oblique reference to some conservative Christians' discomfort with Romney's past positions and Mormon religion, Stemberger said, "The issue is: Can we turn out people and have them vote their values?
"Are they going to be purists and say, 'No, I don't want to vote for this person because I don't like their past or their theology or whatever,' or are they going to vote their values and make the best choice they can?"
Romney and running mate Paul Ryan seem disinclined to challenge the new policy of allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the armed forces.
"Now that it's done, we should not reverse it," Ryan said in an interview on WPTV last month while campaigning in South Florida.
But he and Ryan consistently oppose same-sex marriage, which reassures some conservatives and sets up a clear contrast with Obama.
"A Romney-Ryan ticket is a God-fearing ticket that most Christians and practicing Jews are going to be comfortable with," said Scott Spages of Davie, the Faith Forum group leader at Calvary Chapel of Fort Lauderdale. "We're comfortable with Romney, versus enthusiastic."
He acknowledged that many religious conservatives will be voting against Obama. "There is so much there that [Obama] has done to motivate the other side."
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