Vice President Cheney spelled out his differences with President Bush on the volatile issue of gay marriage Tuesday while making his most revealing public comments so far about the sexual orientation of his gay daughter.
Asked his position on the subject at a town hall meeting here, Cheney replied: "Lynne and I have a gay daughter, so it's an issue that our family is very familiar with. . . . With respect to the question of relationships, my general view is that freedom means freedom for everyone. People . . . ought to be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to."
Cheney went on to reiterate the position he first outlined in the 2000 campaign -- that same-sex marriage should be left to the states to decide. He noted, however, that Bush has endorsed a constitutional amendment preventing the states from recognizing such marriages.
"At this point . . . my own preference is as I've stated," Cheney said. "But the president makes basic policy for the administration. And he's made it."
The remarks were the furthest Cheney has gone in laying out his differences with Bush's position, and they took leaders of the GOP conservative base by surprise. Although Bush has rarely discussed his support for the amendment, conservatives viewed his stance as one of the most important social statements of his term. Republican strategists said it would motivate Christian voters to the polls even though it risks alienating swing voters.
The Family Research Council, a conservative group with close White House ties, called Cheney's remarks disappointing. "Unfortunately, protection of our values is made more difficult when mixed messages emanate from the White House," said Tony Perkins, the group's president. "We support President Bush's commitment to a constitutional amendment on marriage, but we are left to wonder why the vice president is allowed to depart from this position when the top of the ticket is unified on all other issues."
The Human Rights Campaign, the leading gay rights lobbying group, issued an enthusiastic statement after Cheney's remarks. "President Bush must be feeling the heat," said the group's president, Cheryl Jacques. "Millions of Republican families, like the Cheneys, have gay friends and family members and are offended by President Bush's efforts to put discrimination in the Constitution."
Bush officials said Cheney has such deep and longtime goodwill among conservatives that the White House is not worried about the political fallout from the exchange.
Cheney's remark was the first time the vice president has taken note of his daughter's sexual orientation in public, officials said. Mary Cheney works for the Bush-Cheney campaign as director of vice presidential operations, responsible for her father's political travel and appearances.
Cheney's wife, Lynne, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who accompanied the vice president Tuesday, has previously suggested differences with the administration's policy on same-sex marriage. Lynne Cheney said on CNN's "Late Edition" in July that states should have the final say on the issue: "I think that the constitutional amendment discussion will give us an opportunity to look for ways to discuss ways in which we can keep the authority of the states intact."
In February, Bush announced his support for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, calling marriage "the most fundamental institution of civilization" and saying courts were threatening to weaken society by changing the meaning of marriage. In July, the Republican-controlled Senate voted 50 to 48 against bringing up the amendment for a vote.
Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry and running mate John Edwards both oppose the amendment. Although the candidates say they do not support same-sex marriage, they defend the right of gay couples to win the legal protections afforded married couples. They also say the Constitution should not be amended to limit the rights of a certain group of people.
Explaining Bush's position at the town hall meeting Tuesday, Cheney said that several judicial rulings, including those by the Massachusetts Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriages, were beginning to make the judgment for the entire country, and that the president proposed the constitutional amendment as a result. "I think his perception was that the courts, in effect, were beginning to change, without allowing the people to be involved," Cheney said.
"I made clear four years ago when I ran and this question came up in the debate I had with Joe Lieberman that my view was that that's appropriately a matter for the states to decide," he said.
The question on same-sex marriage was asked by a woman who wanted to know what, "in his heart," Cheney thought about the issue. His response was politely received by the group, but not with the enthusiasm of many of his other responses.
Anne Womack, Cheney's campaign spokeswoman, told reporters after the meeting that Cheney's comments did not constitute a change of opinion or policy. She said she could not say whether Cheney opposed the amendment and that "the vice president respects the president's right to make the decision."
Most of the questions from the crowd of 450 were supportive and respectful. But one woman sobbed as she told the vice president that her husband had been unemployed for several years after the pump factory where he worked closed with most of its jobs going abroad.
Cheney responded that U.S. companies would become more competitive if Congress made the last three Bush tax cuts permanent and passed legislation to limit lawsuits against manufacturers and doctors.
Allen reported from Washington.