James McGreevey's declaration this week that he was a “gay American” who has had an extramarital affair with another man, and was resigning the New Jersey governorship, was one of those rare occasions when a politician's inner turmoil erupts into public life.

But the US political spectacle of the week is set to have a less dramatic impact on the broader saga of the year, the presidential election.

Mr McGreevey's decision to resign with effect from November 15 will not trigger a special election. For John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, the safe Democratic state need not become an unnecessary distraction between now and November 2.

In more subtle ways, however, Mr McGreevey's resignation announced the same day as the California Supreme Court ruling that annuls same-sex marriages authorised by Gavin Newsom, the San Francisco mayor plays to the conservative social agenda that the Bush-Cheney campaign has sought to make central to the 2004 election.

The court ruling and the McGreevey disclosure and the prospect of more licentious details to come about the Democratic governor's clandestine relationship with Golan Cipel, a former aide not only drown out Mr Kerry's message on the economy. They also play into a potentially critical series of battleground-state ballot initiatives. Earlier this month, Missouri voted by 71 per cent to 29 per cent to amend the state constitution by banning gay marriage. After the president's effort to amend the US constitution stalled in Congress, the Missouri ballot was seen by both Republicans and Democrats as a signal of how the battle over gay marriage was shifting from Washington to the states. Initiatives banning gay marriage await voters in eight states, and three more initiatives are pending certification.

In the “red” Republican states likeliest to vote for Mr Bush, such as Utah and Kentucky, the gay ballot initiative will have negligible impact on the presidential election. But in a few contested states Arkansas, Oregon, Michigan and, most critically, Ohio the gay ballot initiative could affect election-day turnout.

Ohio, seen as the state that holds the key to victory on November 2, has not yet put an amendment on the ballot. But Republicans and their allies have already collected 400,000 votes to get certification, calculating that a vote on gay marriage will draw out Christianconservatives. Meanwhile, opponents of the amendment have hired attorneys to keep them off the ballot. Phil Burress, chairman of the Ohio Campaign to Protect Marriage, says this week's California ruling “gives us a little ray of hope that there are some judges out there who will interpret the law correctly…Any sexual union that is not a marriage between one man and one woman is a counterfeit marriage and it will bring about destruction”.

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