Sometimes it seems like the presidential election, which ought to be about the whole country picking a president to represent them, comes down to the primaries and caucuses in a few states which are at the top of the schedule. How things go in otherwise minor states like Iowa and New Hampshire, which happen to have the right dates for their primary votes, sets the tone and may well determine the outcome of the entire primary process.
On Friday a court ruling in Iowa — which holds its primary caucus on January 14th — may have thrown down the gauntlet and established what the dominant issue is going to be for the entire election. Polk County Judge Robert Hanson struck down Iowa's Defense of Marriage Act and declared gay marriage to be legal in the state. Almost immediately a unitarian minister in Des Moines married the first gay couple before the judge issued a stay of his ruling to give the legislature time to reassess the act.
Iowa is a relatively socially conservative state, but one where the Democratic party is quite strong. This ruling creates a peculiar situation, because it plays to a position which most Democratic candidates feel compelled to support, but which will likely lose them votes in the Iowa caucus. It presents a similar conundrum for Republicans, most of whom have opposed gay marriage, but realize that opposing this ruling in Iowa may win them votes in the caucus but will cost them among independents in the national election.
What it has undoubtedly done is bring the issue of gay marriage to the forefront of the election debate, and put a lot of candidates in a very awkward position on an issue which seems to be a struggle between legislators pandering to conservative minorities and courts ruling arbitrarily, with no one considering the actual will of the public. And polls continue to show very clearly that a strong majority favor either same-sex marriage or civil unions with full equal rights for same-sex couples.
This ruling doesn't instantly legalize gay marriage in Iowa all by itself, but what it does do is guarantee that the Iowa legislature and the people of Iowa will be debating the issue for the next several months, right through the primary caucus, meaning that it will be on the tip of every tongue and in the forefront of every voter's mind as they make their choices for 2008. There's going to be a lot of talk about the issue and it may well make or break candidates.
There hasn't really been time for an official response from most of the candidates or their campaigns, but interestingly Mary Lundby, chairwoman of the Rudy Giuliani campaign in Iowa spoke up almost immediately to comment "I don't think it's going to be the end of the world if gay couples seek to be married," staking out the high moral ground for her candidate before anyone else in either party could speak out.