The US presidential election sunk to a new low today as a public row over the sexuality of the vice president’s daughter rumbled on.
During the third and final televised campaign debate this week, Democratic challenger John Kerry referred to Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter, Mary.
But the comments drew fire from Mr Cheney and his wife Lynne, who accused Senator Kerry of a “cheap and tawdry political trick”.
During the debate, in Tempe, Arizona, Mr Kerry and President George Bush were asked whether homosexuality was a “choice”.
Mr Kerry replied: “We’re all God’s children. And I think if you were to talk to Dick Cheney’s daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she’s being who she was.
“She’s being who she was born as. I think if you talk to anybody, it’s not a choice.”
Mr Bush, who draws strong support from a Christian base, said he did not know whether homosexuality was a lifestyle choice.
Mr Kerry’s remarks drew an immediate response from the vice-president’s wife.
“This is not a good man,” she said of Mr Kerry.
“Of course, I am speaking as a mom, and a pretty indignant mom.
“This is not a good man. What a cheap and tawdry political trick.”
Mr Cheney followed up yesterday, during a campaign stop in Fort Myers, Florida.
“You saw a man who will do and say anything to get elected.
“And I am not just speaking as a father here, although I am a pretty angry father.” He later added that the comment by Mr Kerry was “totally inappropriate”.
Mr Kerry defended his remarks, saying he meant no offence.
“I love my daughters. They love their daughter. I was trying to say something positive about the way strong families deal with the issue,” he said.
Since the comment, the airwaves have been filled with campaign staff from both sides and members of the public thrashing out the issue.
Elizabeth Edwards, wife of Mr Kerry’s running mate, Senator John Edwards, questioned why the Cheneys had been offended.
She said of Mrs Cheney: “She’s overreacted to this and treated it as if it’s shameful to have this discussion.
“I think that’s a very sad state of affairs.
“I think that it indicates a certain amount of shame with respect to her daughter’s sexual preferences,” she told ABC radio. Mr Edwards pointed out that Mr and Mrs Cheney have discussed their daughter’s sexuality in public in the past.
During the summer, Mr Cheney said in a speech in Iowa: “Lynne and I have a gay daughter, so it’s an issue our family is very familiar with.
“With respect to the question of relationships, my general view is freedom means freedom for everyone.”
Mr Edwards also referred to Mary Cheney during an earlier vice presidential debate with no comeback from the Cheneys.
He said: “I think the vice president and his wife love their daughter. I think they love her very much.
“And you can’t have anything but respect for the fact that they’re willing to talk about the fact that they have a gay daughter, the fact that they embrace her.”
Mr Cheney thanked Senator Edwards during the debate for his “kind words”.
Some analysts suspect that Mr Kerry made the remark in a bid to undermine Mr Bush’s evangelical Christian following.
But others believe the Cheneys have seized on Mr Kerry’s remark as an excuse to launch a fresh attack on his character.
Mary Cheney, who is openly gay, runs operations in the vice president’s campaign office.
She and her partner are an established couple who own a house together in Colorado.
The pair sat side by side in the vice president’s box during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, though neither joined the family onstage afterward, and neither was in sight for the convention finale a day later.
Mary Cheney is the only person in the affair who has refused to comment.
Meanwhile, a new poll showed Mr Bush had opened a four point lead on Mr Kerry.
Mr Bush led Mr Kerry 48 to 44 percentage points in the Zogby poll for Reuters, taken a day after the final debate.
The figures came despite separate polls which suggested Mr Kerry was the stronger candidate in the live televised encounter.
:: Voters in eight out of ten countries selected in an ICM poll for global newspapers, including the Guardian, would like to see Mr Kerry oust Mr Bush from the White House.
The poll, conducted by ten of the world’s leading newspapers, including France’s Le Monde, Japan’s Asahi Shimbun, Canada’s La Press, the Sydney Morning Herald and the UK's Guardian, also shows that on balance world opinion does not believe that the war in Iraq has made a positive contribution to the fight against terrorism.
The results show that in Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Japan, Spain and South Korea a majority of voters all oppose the Iraq invasion and the Bush administration.
The nations also displayed a growing hostility to the United States.
However, 68% of those polled say they have a favourable opinion of American people.
According to the survey, if the British had a vote in the US presidential elections on November 2 they would vote 50% for Mr Kerry and only 22% for Mr Bush.
Sixty per cent of British voters said they did not like Mr Bush and this rises to 77% among those under the age of 25.