CONCORD, N.H. — Whether they like it or not, Republican presidential candidates are joining New Hampshire's intensifying gay marriage debate.
State lawmakers plan in the coming weeks to take up a measure to repeal the law allowing same-sex couples to wed and a vote is expected at some point in January — the same month as New Hampshire holds the nation's first Republican presidential primary contest.
Already, candidates have been put on the spot over the hot-button social issue when most would rather be talking about the economy, voters' No. 1 concern.
The impending focus on gay marriage carries risk for several of White House contenders — including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former businessman Herman Cain — whose inconsistencies on the topic are well documented. Even so, the Republican candidates aren't shying away from the topic.
"As conservatives, we believe in the sanctity of life, we believe in the sanctity of traditional marriage, and I applaud those legislators in New Hampshire who are working to defend marriage between one man and one woman realizing that children need to be raised in a loving home by a mother and a father," Mr. Perry told a New Hampshire audience recently, becoming the latest contender to address gay marriage directly.
While the issue hasn't yet become a regular talking point on the campaign trail, most Republican candidates declare support for the effort to repeal the law. And groups like the National Organization for Marriage hope to force the presidential contenders to publicly embrace the repeal.
"We will be using all the tools at our disposal to lobby the New Hampshire legislature and the broader population," said Christopher Plante, regional director for the National Organization for Marriage. "One of those tools is the echo chamber of presidential candidates continuing to show their support of marriage as defined by one man and one woman."
Mr. Plante acknowledges that for some candidates, "there has been an evolution on a number of fronts" on this issue.
Mr. Romney was the Massachusetts governor when the state Supreme Court ordered the performance of gay marriages. The Romney administration, as directed by the courts, granted nearly 200 same-sex marriage requests in 2005.
Campaign spokesman Ryan Williams said the former governor had little choice but to follow the state Supreme Court ruling at the time. He noted his candidate's consistent opposition to both civil unions and gay marriages, adding that Mr. Romney openly supports the New Hampshire repeal effort.
But Mr. Romney has reversed himself on whether gay marriage should be addressed at the state or federal level.
This past June, he said during a debate that he favors a federal constitutional amendment banning the practice. That's been his position at least since the beginning of his 2008 presidential bid, when he was the only major Republican candidate to support such an amendment.
But as a Massachusetts Senate candidate back in 1994, Mr. Romney told a Boston-area gay newspaper that same-sex marriage is "a state issue as you know — the authorization of marriage on a same-sex basis falls under state jurisdiction." Aides say it's unfair to scrutinize Mr. Romney's position in 1994 — when there was virtually no discussion of a federal amendment.
Both Mr. Perry and Mr. Cain have drawn conservative criticism for more-recent comments related to gay marriage.
Asked in mid-October whether he supports a federal marriage amendment, Mr. Cain told the Christian Broadcasting Network that federal legislation is necessary to protect traditional marriage. That seemed to be a direct contradiction from his statement of just six days earlier, when he told "Meet the Press" host David Gregory that states should be allowed to make up their own minds.
"I wouldn't seek a constitutional ban for same-sex marriage, but I am pro traditional marriage," he told Mr. Gregory.
In Mr. Perry's case, the Texas governor says he supports the New Hampshire repeal. But in July he said that New York's move to legalize gay marriage was "fine by me." A week later, facing social conservative criticism, he walked back the comments.
"It's fine with me that the state is using their sovereign right to decide an issue. Obviously gay marriage is not fine with me," he said then.