- Associated Press - Monday, August 1, 2011

NEW YORK — Same-sex marriage might seem like a straightforward issue: You’re for it or against it. Yet for the field of Republican presidential hopefuls, it’s proving to be an awkward topic as public attitudes change and more states legalize gay unions, the latest being New York.

Numerous recent polls suggest a slim majority of Americans now back gay marriage. Support is highest among Democrats, but is increasing across the political spectrum even as religious conservatives — a key part of the GOP primary electorate — remain largely opposed.

The result, according to political analysts from both major parties, is a dilemma for the leading Republican candidates, most of whom oppose same-sex marriage but tend to avoid raising the topic unless asked.

“They see the polling — more and more Republicans are supporting gay marriage,” said David Welch, a former research director for the Republican National Committee. “It puts them in an awkward position with the younger members of the party and also with independents whose votes you need to win.”

Jan van Lohuizen, who has done polling for George W. Bush and other Republicans, said most of the Republican contenders are faced with a common dilemma — if they trumpet their opposition to same-sex marriage to win conservative votes in GOP primaries, do they risk losing moderate votes in a general election?

His advice to Republican candidates on the marriage debate: “I would simply ignore it. The fiscal issues are so much more decisive than the social issues. Why go out on a limb with this one?”

President Obama, who says he does not support gay marriage but is “evolving” on the issue, is supporting a bill that would extend federal recognition to same-sex couples who marry in the six states that allow it.

New Hampshire is among those six and also home to the first Republican primary next winter. According to conservative activists in the state, none of the major Republican presidential candidates has yet taken a public position on the ongoing effort by some Republican legislators to repeal the 2009 state law legalizing same-sex marriage, though several are on the record as opposing gay marriage.

David Bates, one of the lawmakers pushing for the repeal, said he and his colleagues intend to ask Republican contenders in scheduled debates on the repeal bill in the weeks leading up to the primary.

“We will be seeing to it that each candidate addresses it,” he said. “They will not be able to duck it.”

In Iowa, where social conservatives are likely to play a key role in the GOP caucus next winter, two candidates — Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania — both signed a pledge denouncing same-sex marriage rights.

Former Govs. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota were among those refusing to sign the pledge, but both issued statements stressing they favored the traditional definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

Both Mrs. Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry — a possible presidential contender — have said they respect the existing rights of individual states to define marriage, while supporting an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would define marriage nationally as the union of a man and a woman.

Chuck Donovan, a senior research fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation, predicted that Republican candidates would face mounting pressure from the left and the right to be specific about the gay marriage issue. On the other hand, he said he understood why Republican candidates might soft-pedal their opposition to same-sex unions.

“Most of them sense they’re not going to get the warmest media treatment if they come out and take a stance on the marriage issue,” he said.