America - Andrew Stephen reveals why gay marriage is hot

Bush and Cheney have hit on the issue they believe will save them in the 2 November election - same-

I have been given another warning of Armageddon: this time the very existence of the United States, I have to tell you, is in jeopardy. The warning was issued by Senator Rick Santorum, a Republican who has represented Pennsylvania since 1995. Rick is very worried by the recent rash of gay marriages in Massachusetts and San Francisco. "I would argue," he tells us, "that the future of our country hangs in the balance because the future of marriage hangs in the balance."

It is not only Rick who is worried. George W Bush believes that "activist judges and local officials in some parts of the country are not letting up in their efforts to redefine marriage for the rest of America". The 43rd US president goes on to tell us that "defenders of traditional marriage" must not "flag in their efforts". Bill Frist, the Republican leader in the Senate, adds: "This issue is not going away."

We have continuing bloodshed in Iraq, warnings that the United States will suffer another catastrophic strike by al-Qaeda, jobs continually disappearing, healthcare costs rising - and the Bush-Cheney duo have finally hit on the issue they think may save them in the 2 November election: same-sex marriage. Focus groups and private polls, apparently, suggested to the Republicans that the issue could get them a lot of traction with undecided voters. Even John Kerry and John Edwards, the supposed "liberals" on the Democratic ticket, have now said unequivocally that they are opposed to gay marriage - but they do favour civil unions, which bestow many of the legal rights of marriage.

The Bush-Cheney team, determined to use this weapon of mass distraction on the American electorate, are now wittering on endlessly about "values" and "family values" - which Kerry and Edwards, we are thus led to believe, do not have. Republicans were given the message that they should make an issue of gay marriage between now and the election, despite the inconvenient little fact that Cheney has a campaigning lesbian daughter. This has led Lynne Cheney, Dick's wife, to differ publicly from what Dick says.

But so far the Republicans have botched their launch of this particular weapon. Family law, embracing the whole issue of gay marriage and civil unions, is normally decided by individual states rather than by the federal government - hence the local legalisation of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts and San Francisco. To clobber this long-standing practice once and for all, the Bush administration decided that it would get over all those pesky little local laws by introducing an amendment to the US constitution. The motion for the amendment was duly introduced to the Senate, defining marriage as solely the "union of a man and a woman", adding that marriage should not be "conferred upon any union other than the union of a man and a woman".

The motion, however, died a miserably slow death during four days in the Senate. Because the Democrats manoeuvred the Senate timetable so that a procedural motion was voted on rather than the substantive issue, Senators Kerry and Edwards did not return to Washington for the vote - a trap that the Republicans thought they had successfully sprung, forcing Kerry and Edwards to oppose the amendment. But six Republicans, including John McCain, voted against - and thereby made sure the motion would die.

The issue of gay marriage remains an emotive issue that Bush-Cheney plan to exploit in the election campaign. But any possibility that they could actually have legislation passed before election day is a dream that lies in tatters.

Their focus groups and polls, it seems, failed to discover exactly what American voters think on the issue. They are thoroughly opposed to gay marriage, it is true - but also believe that an amendment to the constitution is too dramatic a step. In the words of Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, the Republicans are trying to turn the hallowed US constitution into "a kiosk for political bumper-stickers".

The flurry of activity on gay marriage dates back to 1993, when the supreme court of Hawaii ruled that denying marriage to same-sex couples was unconstitutional under the state's laws. The reaction of 35 other states was swift: they rushed to pass laws that outlawed gay marriage. In 1996, as a further reaction, Congress passed the Federal Defence of Marriage Act, which was signed into law by Bill Clinton. It defined marriage as meaning "only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife", and ruled that no state should be required to recognise the same-sex marriages of other states. This created a special anomaly for gay marriages; in other issues of family law, such as a divorce between a man and a woman, the constitution dictates that a divorce in one state must be recognised by other states.

But that law did not stop the state of Massachusetts and the city of San Francisco from acting unilaterally by legalising gay marriage in their jurisdictions - just like the Netherlands, Belgium and two provinces of Canada, Ontario and British Columbia. Vermont and California have meanwhile passed "domestic partnership" laws that allow civil unions between couples of the same sex; this has allowed Kerry and Edwards to say that, while they are opposed to gay marriage, they support the concept of civil unions. Kerry told a meeting in San Francisco last February that he supports giving gay couples federal privileges such as the right to file joint income-tax returns, to collect benefits on the death of a partner, and so on: words that may yet, given the ruthlessness of Bush-Cheney, come back to haunt him.

The Senate debate has already led to much nasty back-stabbing in Washington. The press secretary of one Republican senator who was in favour of the constitutional amendment was threatened with outing, although the senator in question did not know of his employee's sexual preferences. Despite all the setbacks on gay marriage, the psephologists say that the gay issue may yet help Bush and Cheney in key swing states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Missouri. Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights group, has meanwhile spent more than $2m to combat the campaign against gay marriage.

And Rick Santorum has been more active than ever. Last year, he made a speech equating homosexual acts with bigamy, polygamy, incest and adultery. Earlier this month, he described a Democratic rally as "spewing . . . venom and filth". He was one of the authors of the proposal to amend the constitution, and after the Senate vote he was still jubilant about all the kudos he received from the mass of Republicans. "This has been an incredible few days for me," he said. "It's not easy standing up against this popular culture in which we live."

Because of such upstanding vigilance, I present to you my hero of the week: Senator Rick Santorum, tireless champion of the kind of values that have made America what it is today.