CHARLOTTE, N.C. — President Obama’s conversion on gay marriage back in May was a bold, public celebration of gay community pride, punctuated with a flurry of lavish Hollywood fundraisers. It played extremely well in Los Angeles, New York and blue regions across the country.
But now, as Democrats converge on Charlotte for their convention, the president must navigate more difficult terrain — remain consistent in his support for same-sex unions but not trumpet the message so loudly that it alienates a significant number of Democratic voters in a Bible Belt state that Mr. Obama desperately wants to hold onto in November.
The party’s platform, which delegates will adopt on Tuesday, officially supports gay marriage, making Democrats the first major party to do so.
But doing that here in North Carolina is tricky because it highlights the divisions in a state where Republicans hold both chambers of the Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction and appear poised to win the governorship in November. It’s also where voters passed a referendum banning gay marriage by 61 percent in May, the day before Mr. Obama made his big announcement in support of gay marriage.
Democratic strategists generally see Mr. Obama’s approval of same-sex marriage as a way to energize the party’s base and attract younger voters, who are far more open to the idea than their parents and grandparents.
But those strategists also are wary of turning off large swaths of voters in key swing states in the Midwest and South.
Despite this concern, Mr. Obama readily touted his support for gay marriage last week on his tour of three college campuses in the battleground states of Iowa, Colorado and Virginia.
“We don’t need to rewrite our Constitution to somehow say that people who love each other and aren’t bothering anybody else, that somehow they cannot get married,” Mr. Obama told students at Colorado State University during a stop there last week. “That’s not who we are. We go forward. We don’t go backwards.”
But when the Democratic Party drafted its platform with the gay-marriage plank in early August, Mr. Obama’s voice was notably absent, and the White House has refused to indicate whether the president supports this move, saying only that his views on gay marriage are well-known.
“The president’s position on this view has been well-chronicled, shall we say,” White House spokesman Joshua Earnest said in late July, referring questions to the Democratic National Committee.
A DNC representative subsequently declined to comment.
If the White House and the DNC are trying to avoid public support for adding a gay-marriage plank to the party’s platform, gay-marriage activists aren’t too concerned.
Evan Wolfson, the founder of Freedom to Marry, who is known as the godfather of the same-sex-marriage movement, says he hasn’t noticed any reluctance.
“I don’t see that at all,” he said. “The president made a clear and strong statement of support reflecting the moral leadership we look for presidents to show. It was a very powerful and heartfelt explanation … I haven’t seen any hesitation or concern” since then.
Mr. Wolfson argues that social conservatives held the referendum in North Carolina before gay activists could engage voters there. American public opinion has shifted remarkably in favor of gay marriage, he says, and since the referendum, there is even positive momentum in North Carolina and the Democratic Party is simply reflecting that.
“The Democratic Party is living up to its proclaimed values and standing squarely with the majority of Americans,” Mr. Wolfson said. “A substantial majority of independents, a supermajority of Democrats and young people support gay marriage.”
With the Republican Party passing a platform at their convention in Tampa, Fla., last week that explicitly disapproved same-sex unions, the contrast couldn’t be more stark on the issue.
Mr. Wolfson accuses the Republican Party of being on the wrong side of history, carving out a position to the right of former President George W. Bush, who approved civil unions for same-sex partners, and former Vice President Dick Cheney, whose daughter Mary is openly lesbian and who supports full marriage privileges for same-sex couples.
But Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, applauded the GOP for adding the plank and ignoring Republicans who want to shirk social issues and concentrate the party’s focus only on economic policies. Mr. Bush’s and Mr. Cheney’s positions on gay marriage never reflected those of a majority of Republicans, he argues.