As the run-up to the general election intensifies, same-sex marriage offers the parties one of their sharpest contrasts. But in a reversal of strategy from eight years ago, when President George W. Bushâ€™s reelection team seized on the issue to energize his partyâ€™s social conservative base and win over some swing voters opposed to gay marriage, the Republicans of 2012 are so far treating the issue gingerly.
In the 24 hours since President Obama announced his support for gay marriage and turned it into aÂ hot-button campaign issue, presidential candidate Mitt Romney and other Republican leaders have chosen their words carefully.
Romney reaffirmed his opposition to gay marriage. â€œI believe that marriage has been defined the same way for literally thousands of years by virtually every civilization in history and that marriage is by its definition a relationship between a man and woman,â€ Romney said Thursday on Fox News. But he added that same-sex couples should have the right to adopt children and start families, adding that the marriage issue was â€œtender and sensitive.â€
Those sensitivities reach deep into Romneyâ€™s coalition. Some top Republicans described a growing divide within the GOP, with most of the partyâ€™s elected leaders in step with the social conservative base by publicly opposing same-sex marriage but softening their tone to avoid alienating the moderate middle.
Some of Romneyâ€™s biggest financial backers â€” including Lewis M. Eisenberg, a former Republican National Committee finance chairman, and hedge fund managers Paul Singer and Daniel S. Loeb â€” have become public advocates for gay marriage, as have other Romney supporters, including former vice president Dick Cheney and former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton.
Behind the scenes, influential donors and top strategists are counseling Republican candidates to avoid hot rhetoric or stigmatizing gay people, fearing a potential backlash from voters, who, polling suggests, are fast growing moreÂ open to gay marriage.
Steve Schmidt, a strategist for John McCainâ€™s 2008 campaign as well as Bushâ€™s campaigns, said Obamaâ€™s announcement Wednesday drew attention to â€œdeep divisionâ€ within the GOP on the issue.
â€œThis really spotlights a fissure in the Republican Party between the southern evangelical wing of the party â€” where they donâ€™t mind government intrusion into the bedroom and into individualsâ€™ private space â€” and the limited-government side of the party,â€ Schmidt said. â€œLooking back at this from 50 years in the future, people who are on the wrong side of this issue arenâ€™t going to stand very well in historyâ€™s light.â€
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