When President Bush warned that he might back a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in his State of the Union address last week, he sent a strong message to his conservative religious voter base.
At the same time, analysts say, he carefully tailored it to avoid alienating the socially moderate swing voters he needs to win in November.
By focusing on a constitutional amendment, he chose a difficult political vehicle with questionable public support.
"It's a quagmire," said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a presidential historian at University of Pennsylvania. "There is a reason there are only 17 amendments to the Constitution over the past 200 years. [The Founding Fathers] didn't want to make it easy."
An amendment requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress and ratification by three-quarters of the state legislatures. The last major constitutional amendment was ratified in 1971, when the government reduced voting age from 21 to 18.
The only major battle after that involved the Equal Rights Amendment for women. Congress approved it in 1972, but it fell three states short of passage a decade later.
While gay marriage emerged as a widely debated issue last summer, support for an amendment to ban it seems to fall well below the political threshold it would require. A Zogby International poll this month showed Americans evenly split on the question, while a survey released last week by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed support at 10 percent.
More significantly, the Pew poll showed that only one in five Americans views the marriage amendment as a top domestic priority. It ranked next to last among 22 "top priorities" - just ahead of the space program.
"Some voters think this is extremely important, but they are a distinct minority," said Scott Keeter, the Pew Center's associate director. Compared with a jobless economic recovery, the menace of terrorism at home and attacks on U.S. soldiers abroad, the marriage of same-sex couples doesn't seem quite so threatening, he said.
Political analysts theorize that Bush included the marriage amendment in his speech as a gesture to religious conservatives worried by a recent Massachusetts high court decision that struck down a state ban on gay marriage.
Religious conservatives want a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and to halt efforts of gay-rights activists to have their unions legally recognized as marriage.
How the issue plays out may hinge on developments in Massachusetts. The state Senate has passed a bill to create civil unions that would give same-sex couples all the legal benefits of marriage minus the title. The state's Supreme Judicial Court is considering whether the bill meets the requirements of its earlier ruling, which said gays have the right to marry.
The White House declined last week to speculate on how Bush might respond to a Massachusetts civil union law. As governor of Texas, Bush said he would not support civil unions there. During this year's State of the Union address, he voiced support for the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, which denies same-sex couples federal benefits such as Social Security payments to survivors. Thirty-seven states have passed similar legislation.
Some analysts see gay marriage as a potential wedge issue in the coming election, one which candidates can use to lure voters away from opponents. This political calculus appears to favor Republicans, who overwhelmingly oppose gay marriage, while polls show Democrats about evenly divided.
Bush measured his words last week, lest opponents portray him as a religious extremist, analysts said. Referring to the Massachusetts court, Bush blamed "activist judges" for pushing gay marriage, and spoke of a constitutional amendment as a last resort.
"If judges insist on forcing their arbitrary will upon the people, the only alternative left to the people would be the constitutional process," Bush said.
Then, in what seemed a gesture to social moderates, he said debate on gay marriage must be civil and respectful, adding that God views homosexuals as having dignity and value.
"I think this White House knows that this can be used to their political advantage, but they don't like the `Culture War' rhetoric," said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative Washington-based think tank. "They are being very careful that they don't look like they are gay bashing."
But some evangelical Christians said Bush didn't go far enough. The Family Research Council, a think tank with strong ties to the evangelical community, urged the president to lead the fight for an amendment. "Now is the time, before the Court of Massachusetts imposes same-sex marriage on America, to protect the sacred and irreplaceable institution of marriage," the council's president, Tony Perkins, said in a statement.