Gay marriage goes to the Supreme Court this week, but it's already a major dividing line in the 2016 presidential primaries, where Democrats are scrambling to embrace it and Republicans are searching for a way to balance their traditional beliefs with a new focus on being a kinder, gentler party.
Even as many in the GOP hold out hope for a national constitutional amendment should the court allow gay marriage to go forward in California, Sens. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio argue that the issue should be left to the states to decide.
"I don't think the federal government should tell anybody or any state government how they should decide this," Mr. Paul, Kentucky Republican, said on "Fox News Sunday". "Marriage has been a state issue for hundreds and hundred of years."
And Mr. Rubio, Florida Republican, said earlier this year that he opposes a federal marriage amendment because it "steps on the rights of states to define marriage."
That puts the two tea party favorites at odds with the more socially conservative elements of their party, including potential rivals for the GOP nomination, and the party's 2012 platform, which endorsed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The last time Congress took up a federal marriage amendment was 2006 and it died after failing to garner enough votes despite having the support of then-President George W. Bush, a Republican.
Meanwhile, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a potential 2016 candidate, announced her support of same-sex marriage, putting her on the same page as President Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who also is pondering a White House run.
Mrs. Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton, also has come out against a bill he signed in 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act that defines marriage for the purpose of federal law as a legal union between one man and one woman.
The political jockeying comes as the Supreme Court readies to hear landmark constitutional challenges on Tuesday and on Wednesday to DOMA and California's Proposition 8, the ballot measure that bars same-sex marriage in the state.
The cases could impact the 38 states that have banned gay marriage, as well as the nine states and the District of Columbia that grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples — a list that includes Iowa and New Hampshire, home to the opening contests in the presidential primary.
Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, said the high court's ruling will also go a long way in determining the contours of the marriage debate in the 2016 presidential campaign and that he will continue to support robust efforts to protect traditional marriage.
"The landscape has changed," Mr. Perkins said, adding that it would be next to impossible to pass a federal marriage amendment with Democrats in control of the White House and the Senate. "I think there would be more support for ensuring that DOMA — the state part of DOMA — remains intact."
Several of the other Republicans thought to be considering a White House run have previously voiced support for or have voted for a federal marriage amendment in the past, including former Sens. Rick Santorum and Jim DeMint, as well as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and Rep. Paul Ryan, the party's 2012 vice presidential nominee.
Sen. Ted Cruz's office said the Texas Republican supports a federal marriage amendment, while the offices of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker did not respond to inquiries. Neither did a spokesman for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Whatever the outcome, the Supreme Court showdown has exposed fissures within the Republican ranks.
More than 100 former GOP lawmakers and leaders signed onto a brief opposing Proposition 8, which passed thanks in large part to strong support from evangelical Christians.
Phyllis Schlafly, president of the Eagle Forum, responded by calling on Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus to reinforce the party's commitment to a federal marriage amendment and DOMA.
Weeks later. the RNC released a post-election analysis — called the "Growth and Opportunity Project" — that found there is a "generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and rights of gays — and for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the party is a place they want to be."
"We need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian and gay Americans and demonstrate that we care about them, too," the report said.
Jimmy LaSalvia, co-chairman of GOProud, which represents gay conservatives, predicted that more candidates for the nation's top office will come down on the side of states' rights on the marriage issue.
"Those advertising the support of the federal marriage amendment look completely out of touch because everyone knows that it is very unlikely that that it would ever pass," Mr. LaSalvia said. "There is a new political reality now. People will vote for candidates regardless of their support on this issue. There is going to come a day when the Republican Party -- the vast majority of Republicans -- will support same-sex marriage."
Polls show that public opinion has shifted in favor of same-sex marriage over the past decade and is most popular among the same young voters who overwhelmingly supported Mr. Obama in the 2012 election.
Social conservatives and evangelical Christian leaders, though, argue the polls are "skewed" and that GOP leaders are throwing social conservatives overboard.
Gary Bauer, president of American Values, said Republicans on Capitol Hill "seem afraid to make arguments about any values issues" and said the GOP must take stronger public stands against redefining marriage and abortion -- otherwise they will risk losing their base of evangelical and religious supporters.
"I would just say to Republicans generally who want to be president that we are living in an America where liberal courts are day-by-day ripping out of the public square our Judeo-Christian world view," Mr. Bauer said. "To say that [marriage] ought to be defined state-by-state begs the question: How do you propose we get there? The court is being asked to strike down every state law."
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