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Dems, GOP warily eye issue of gays in military

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[February 04, 2010]  WASHINGTON (AP) -- For many lawmakers, "don't ask, don't tell" makes a lot of sense -- for themselves. Ten months before elections, neither party sees much to gain in stirring up the once-volatile issue of letting gays serve openly in the military. Any candidate who isn't laser-focused on jobs is making a big mistake, strategists from both parties said Wednesday, noting that public support for gay rights has grown substantially in recent years.

InsuranceOnly a decade or so ago, if the Pentagon and White House had suggested such a policy change, it probably would have triggered public outcries similar to those that tripped up Bill Clinton in 1993 and led to the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" compromise.

But the Pentagon's top leaders this week embraced President Barack Obama's call to phase out the policy that bars gay men and lesbians from military service if they divulge their sexual orientation. The political reaction? Barely a whisper.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, which is heading the GOP bid to gain dozens of House seats this November, said its official position was summarized by House Republican leader John Boehner last weekend.

"I don't think it will be a campaign issue," Boehner told NBC. "In the middle of two wars, and in the middle of this giant security threat, why would we want to get into this debate?"

Some saw his comments as a mild swipe at Obama. But the president got a boost Wednesday when retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, once the nation's top military commander, reversed his previous opposition to letting gays serve openly in the armed services.

Meanwhile, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., said nothing about the proposed policy change, which he personally opposes, despite having a perfect platform for doing so Wednesday. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen testified before Skelton's committee, and they received only a smattering of questions or comments from lawmakers about the topic that dominated their testimony before senators a day earlier.

Republican political strategist David Winston said he's not surprised that campaign leaders from both parties are advising candidates to avoid the gays-in-the-military issue. With unemployment at 10 percent, he said, "whenever you're not talking about jobs and the economy, you're talking about something the public's not focused on."

Winston said Obama took a political risk by calling for the policy change in last week's State of the Union address. Democratic activists said the president was under pressure to make some concessions to gay rights activists who feel somewhat ignored after strongly backing his campaign.

It's certainly possible that the gays and military subject will arise in some congressional campaigns this year. House Democratic leaders said they will quietly sound out their more moderate and politically vulnerable members before deciding when to seek a vote to overturn Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

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White House and congressional aides said it's not clear such a vote will occur this year, even though Vice President Joe Biden indicated it would in an MSNBC interview on Tuesday.

Opinion polls show significant shifts in public attitudes toward gays serving in the military. The changes have occurred as five states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriages in recent years.

Pew Research polls found that support for gays serving openly in the military rose from just over half of all Americans in 1994 to nearly 60 percent in 2005 and later years. Opposition dropped from 45 percent to 32 percent, and the proportion of people "strongly opposed" dropped by half, to 13 percent.

A USA Today/Gallup poll from mid-2009 showed even stronger support for letting gays serve openly in the military: 69 percent in favor, 26 opposed and 6 percent unsure. Among Republicans and conservatives, the rate of support was 58 percent. Support ran lowest in the South and among older Americans, but it still easily exceeded 50 percent among those groups.

Gates gave the administration and Congress some breathing room this week by saying the Pentagon would need at least a year to implement the proposed changes.

Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said at Wednesday's Armed Services Committee hearing that lawmakers will want the Pentagon to show "concrete, in-depth evidence that readiness concerns require a change and that such a change would not degrade wartime military readiness in any measurable, significant way."

[Associated Press; By CHARLES BABINGTON]

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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