By AMY LORENTZEN
The Associated Press
Friday, August 31, 2007; 8:21 PM
DES MOINES, Iowa -- An Iowa county judge's ruling knocking down the state's same-sex marriage ban stirred up the presidential race Friday as Republicans jostled to stake out a position with the state's conservative voters in mind.
Mitt Romney was the first to seize on the ruling, promptly aligning himself with Iowa political leaders in denouncing the decision.
The former Massachusetts governor's swift criticism served to bolster the conservative image his campaign has been working hard to promote to Iowa's Republican voters. Romney stressed his support for a federal amendment that would ban same-sex marriage, a stand that distinguishes him from his top rivals, who have said they prefer to leave such decisions to the states.
"The ruling in Iowa ... is another example of an activist court and unelected judges trying to redefine marriage and disregard the will of the people as expressed through Iowa's Defense of Marriage Act," Romney said in a statement shortly after the ruling was made. "This once again highlights the need for a Federal Marriage Amendment to protect the traditional definition of marriage as between one man and one woman."
On Friday, Polk County Judge Robert Hanson, who ruled Thursday that the state's decade-old ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, issued a stay on his own ruling. The stay closed the window for any gay couples seeking to marry in Polk County.
But the decision inflamed an issue that is important to conservative Republicans in this early voting state.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was the first Democrat to offer a reaction. Taping an appearance on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" Friday, Clinton said she favors civil unions "with full equality of benefits." But she said the question of same-sex marriage should be left up to the states.
"The states have always determined age of marriage, other conditions and over time we've gotten rid a lot of discrimination that used to exist in marriage laws," she said. "That's now happening. People are making decisions. Civil unions, marriage. They're deciding in the states and I think that's the appropriate place for that to be."
A spokesman for Democrat Barack Obama said the senator "believes these matters should be left to the states, which is why he opposes the Defense of Marriage Act."
While most Democratic candidates have voiced support for same-sex civil unions, they have declined to back gay marriage, a stance that has created some tension with their gay supporters.
For Republicans, the task was not to offend conservatives.
Republican White House hopeful John McCain called the ruling "a loss for the traditional family."
"I have always supported the traditional definition of marriage as between one man and one woman," he said. "The ruling of the court only reinforces my belief that we must have a president who is committed to appointing strict constructionists to the bench."
Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, who has worked hard to gain the backing of social conservatives in Iowa, offered a sharp rejection of the judge's ruling.
"The people of Iowa reject the redefinition of marriage, and I pledge today to defend the bond of marriage, as I have consistently done in the past," he said in a statement.
Jarrod Agen, a spokesman for Rudy Giuliani, said the former New York mayor "believes marriage is between a man and a woman." Giuliani has supported limited legal recognition for same-sex couples.
"It's becoming increasingly clear why we need judges who interpret the Constitution rather than legislate from the bench," Agen said. "It's the reason why Rudy is committed to appointing strict constructionist judges in the vein of Alito, Roberts and Scalia."
Former Sen. Fred Thompson, who will officially enter the presidential race next week, has offered support for a federal amendment that would prevent states without gay marriage laws from having to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.
On Friday, Romney discussed the matter in a private conference call with Iowa House Republican Leader Christopher Rants, who has endorsed Romney, and Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, which worked on gay marriage issues in Massachusetts.
Later, campaigning in South Carolina, Romney said he would renew his calls to amend the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. "That's essential to our future," he said.
While Romney is willing to generally leave it to states to decide how to set up health care coverage plans, he said it shouldn't be left to states to decide same-sex marriage issues.
"It's a status that lasts a lifetime. And so, if somebody is married in one state and they move to another state, that status travels with them. And so, if you have gay marriage in one state, whether you want it or not, you have gay marriage in all states," Romney told reporters after speaking at a Greenville, S.C., restaurant.
Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, said the ruling could fire up social conservatives.
"It will probably stir up the social conservatives in the state and make the climate better in Iowa for the most socially conservative of the presidential candidates," she said. "That would be most of them, except (Rudy) Giuliani, I guess."
She said Romney can use the issue to dispel any lingering doubts about his commitment to social conservative causes.
"He's very much trying to establish himself with the social conservatives in the state, who even though he won the Republican straw poll, eye him somewhat suspiciously as not being conservative enough because of being governor of Massachusetts, which did allow gay marriages, and he switched his position on reproductive choice," she said.
Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines, said Giuliani could stress his opposition to same-sex marriage to help reassure some conservatives who find his anti-terrorism stance appealing but reject his past support for some abortion rights.
"It gives Giuliani a chance to play," he said.
Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington and Jim Davenport in South Carolina contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS the story by reporting that Clinton was the first, not the only, Democrat to respond.)