- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 9, 2015

Four years after Republican primary voters showered a video of an openly gay soldier with boos at a presidential debate, Republicans in Ohio applauded when Gov. John Kasich revealed that he had recently attended a same-sex wedding.

Mr. Kasich, who was playing to a home-court crowd at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland during the first official debate of the 2016 presidential race, did make clear that he would prefer traditional marriage but said love and compassion compel an open attitude.

“It was overwhelming. It was prolonged. I was surprised,” said Shawn Steel, a Republican National Committee member from California. “I think there has been a whole new thinking and appreciation that [same-sex marriage] is not the great threat that people thought it was.”

The first debate showcased a dramatically different Republican field than the 2012 version, which was widely deemed to be the weakest in decades. One-term Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was the only star. The rest of the field took turns pummeling Mr. Romney in the debates, though he captured the nomination in the end.

This time, 17 candidates with centuries of political experience among them spread out over two debates Thursday and showcased the many facets of the conversation within the Republican Party over liberty and national security, entitlement spending and budget cuts, and immigration.

But aside from caustic remarks from front-runner Donald Trump, the candidates — and the audience — showed a more measured approach, particularly to hot-button social issues such as same-sex marriage.

“It is a ‘live and let live’ philosophy that has been reawakened,” Mr. Steel said.

Public opinion on same-sex marriage has shifted significantly in recent years. Fifty-seven percent of Americans opposed it in 2001, and now 55 percent support it, according to the Pew Research Center.

Support is greater among younger generations. Seven in 10 millennials and nearly six in 10 Generation-Xers favor same-sex marriage, compared with 45 percent of baby boomers and 39 percent of the silent generation that preceded the boomers.

A majority of conservatives continue to oppose same-sex marriage, and many have been in an uproar over the Supreme Court’s recent 5-4 ruling making it the law of the land.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said in Thursday’s debate, “It’s time that we recognize the Supreme Court is not the supreme being.”

With a record-breaking 24 million viewers tuned into the debate, Mr. Kasich sent a different message after Megyn Kelly, a Fox News political commentator and debate moderator, asked how he would explain his opposition to same-sex marriage if he had a child who was gay.

He replied that he still thinks marriage should be between a man and a woman, but he accepts the court’s ruling legally.

“And guess what — I just went to a wedding of a friend of mine who happens to be gay,” he said. “Because somebody doesn’t think the way I do doesn’t mean that I can’t care about them or can’t love them. So if one of my daughters happened to be that, of course I would love them and I would accept them. Because you know what? That’s what we’re taught when we have strong faith.”

Greg T. Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, said the applause was so loud in the Quicken Loans Arena that he had to rewatch the debate to hear Mr. Kasich’s entire statement.

“Democrats talk about how quickly they have evolved as party on gay issues, but the fact is that Democrats are not the only ones who have evolved very quickly on these issues,” Mr. Angelo said. “Republicans have also evolved very quickly on these issues. I think Kasich’s statement and the resounding applause that he received show there has been a tremendous amount of movement on issues related to gay marriage over the course of the last four years.”

Still, the fight has not been settled within the Republican Party, where religious conservatives said Mr. Kasich’s stance won’t play well.

“His tone of surrender may not have fazed the biased Buckeye audience, but it certainly bothered the GOP base,” said Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council.

Democrats attacked Republicans after a 2011 debate in Florida during which Army Capt. Stephen Hill said that when he was deployed to Iraq in 2010 he had to lie about who he was “because I was a gay soldier, and I didn’t want to lose my job.”

“My question is, under one of your presidencies, do you intend to circumvent the progress that’s been made for gay and lesbian soldiers in the military?” he said.

The crowd — hearing a Democratic talking point — showered him with boos, and candidate Rick Santorum responded that he would reinstitute the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and said “any type of sexual activity has absolutely no place in the military.”

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