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President Bush will face a multitude of tests over the coming four years as observers measure his commitment to the "compassionate conservatism" he touts, but none will be more telling than how he approaches issues involving homosexuality.

In many of the camps on the Republican right, the subject of gay rights is not just politically questionable, but morally detestable. As far as that goes, so are gays, according to that crowd. Any move to back away from that stand will be met with the apoplectic rage of the far right.

Yet even the simplest test of the Bush standard has to include a presumption that homosexuals are deserving of respect, and, therefore, that sexual orientation is no indicator of fitness for public office, let alone the right to live unoppressed by the likes of John Ashcroft.

It will be no easy thing for Bush to keep his troops in line while living up to the promise he made during his campaign, but that will be a benchmark of his presidency, a gauge he established, himself. The grading has already begun, and the results are mixed.

An optimistic signal occurred last month, when a breakfast was held to honor the Republican Unity Coalition as part of the inauguration festivities. The new organization includes gay party members, and the event's master of ceremonies was a respected conservative, former Sen. Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming.

Simpson, in addressing the group, offered a clear, direct statement of acceptance and friendship toward gays. "Not one of us doesn't have someone close to us who is gay or lesbian," he was quoted in the New York Times. Simpson specifically cited the unconditional love Vice President Cheney has for his daughter, a lesbian, and predicted that "one fine day, sexual orientation will be a nonissue in the Republican Party."

That day is not here yet, because no top official of the new administration showed up at the event and Bush, as governor of Texas, opposed many gay rights issues. But the president did pledge to gay Republicans in a previous meeting that sexual orientation will not be an issue in the hiring done by his administration.

That very issue, though, has come up in Bush's nomination of Ashcroft to be attorney general. Ashcroft testified during his confirmation hearings that he has never discriminated against gays in hiring. But shortly after making that statement, a former job applicant claimed the then-governor bluntly asked him during an interview, "Do you have the same sexual preference as most men?"

The man, Paul Offner, is a former Democratic state senator from Wisconsin and an aide to former New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Though Ashcroft and his backers deny such a question was asked, Offner remembers it in enough detail to make the claim credible. What's more, friends say he told them about it at the time.

It will be instructive to see how Bush reacts to future acts of discrimination against gays. In particular, how will he react to a man who is his primary link to the far right if he is hostile to the tone Bush promised to set?

The next four years could be a turning point for the Republican Party, if Bush has the grit to withstand the stone-throwing from the right. There are real risks to embracing that kind of change, though, as Democrats found out after Lyndon Johnson, also a Texan, threw his considerable weight behind the cause of civil rights.

The South began to turn Republican after that, and while there is little chance conservative Republicans will run to the Democrats if Bush acknowledges gays as human beings of equal value, they could still turn away from the party, crippling its chances for greater power.

But most of the country has already concluded that gay rights is a worthy cause and, in the end, the Republican Party has no choice but to come to grips with this issue. It will never have a better chance to do so than it does now.

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