With the U.S. presidential election just a few weeks away, much political discussion centers on questions of national security and economic affairs. But America's news media remain focused on the controversy that erupted last week when Democratic Party presidential hopeful John Kerry mentioned the sexual orientation of Vice President Cheney's daughter, Mary, who is gay. Debate over the appropriateness of Mr. Kerry's comment dominated several U.S. television political programs Sunday.

Four days after the third and final presidential debate, a panel discussion on Fox News Sunday turned into a virtual shouting match on the question of John Kerry mentioning Mary Cheney's homosexuality.

Passions ran even higher on NBC's McLaughlin Group.

The furor began during last week's presidential debate, when President Bush and Senator Kerry were asked if they believe homosexuality is a choice. Mr. Bush said he did not know.

"I think, if you were to talk to Dick Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she is being who she was [is]. She is being who she was born as," replied Mr. Kerry.

After the debate, Vice President Cheney's wife, Lynne, denounced the senator for his remark.

"This [Mr. Kerry] is not a good man," said Mrs. Cheney. "What a cheap and tawdry political trick!"

A poll released by The Washington Post newspaper shows two-thirds of Americans believe mentioning the sexual orientation of Mr. Cheney's daughter in a public forum was "inappropriate."

But Democratic Party officials are defending Mr. Kerry, pointing out that Mary Cheney is an openly gay public figure. She has served as a beer company's outreach coordinator to America's gay community, and is currently working for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign. They also point out that the vice president, himself, has spoken proudly of his daughter while discussing the politically-contentious issue of gay marriage on the campaign trail.

"With respect to the question of gay marriage, Lynne and I have a gay daughter," he said. "We have two daughters and we have enormous pride in both of them. They are both fine young women."

Speaking on CBS's Face the Nation program, Democratic strategist Tad Devine said Senator Kerry meant no disrespect in mentioning Mary Cheney, and accused Republicans of pouncing on the controversy to deflect attention from pressing issues at home and abroad.

"John Kerry was being positive," said Mr. Devine. "Unfortunately, it [the remark] was perceived otherwise. And I think I know why. The president lost three debates to John Kerry. The president's position is eroding in the polls. The president cannot defend his record over the last four years."

Republicans strongly disagree. President Bush's campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, spoke on NBC's Meet the Press.

"It is wrong to bring up the private life of a member of the vice president's family to make a political point. It is that simple," he said.

Mr. Melhman added that Senator Kerry has shown he is willing to say anything to get elected.

Public opinion surveys taken after the last debate showed Senator Kerry edging President Bush in the 90-minute exchange. But most polls continue to show President Bush leading Mr. Kerry by single digits nationwide.