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Obama, Romney want to play down gay marriage

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama concur on how to deal with the politics of gay marriage: Keep it below the radar.

Both the president and his Republican challenger believe their focus in the fall campaign has to be on the economy and jobs. To spend much time on any other issue – foreign policy, abortion or gay marriage – would be a distraction.

This is the message both campaigns told surrogates to deliver over the past week. Neither side believes many votes will be changed by the president’s recent support for gay marriage, a reversal of his previous stances, or by Romney’s reassertion of his opposition. Yet the topic makes both camps nervous, and the Democrats slightly more so.

There are two contextual realities. One is that public opinion is moving inexorably toward greater tolerance. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll is instructive: In the middle of the 2004 presidential election, the public opposed same-sex marriages by more than a 2-1 majority. This year, in the same poll, on the same question, a plurality favored it.

Younger voters in particular strongly support same-sex marriage; older voters don’t. That trend line favors proponents.

It’s equally true that almost every time the issue of allowing gay marriage is on a ballot, it loses, most recently this month in North Carolina. That suggests that opponents are more fervent in their feelings.

Over the weekend the Obama campaign website highlighted his view on same-sex marriage, after playing it down last week and stressing the economy instead. On Romney’s site, the issue was buried under a “values” subheading.

The same dynamic is apparent on the congressional level. Just look at two incumbents facing tough challenges: the Brown boys. Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., who opposes same-sex marriage, doesn’t mention it on his website. Neither does Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who favors legalization.

The president’s camp believes the issue is a wash. Already generous funding from the gay and lesbian community is likely to only increase; the hope is that’ll include contributions to the resource-starved outside groups that back the president.

Gays and lesbians account for about 5 percent of the electorate; since most already are Democrats, there isn’t likely to be any added advantage. African-Americans more strongly oppose same-sex marriage than whites; nonetheless, few expect that even a marginal number will stiff the first black president as a result of his position.

The most important gains from Obama’s announcement, Democrats believe, may come from shaking young voters out of their lethargy. The renowned Democratic pollster Peter Hart, in an election memorandum in which he puts the president’s chances of re-election at no better than 50-50, says same-sex marriage “could prove to be exceptionally important in mobilizing volunteer activity with young people.”

On the other side, Romney’s backers believe their candidate doesn’t need to emphasize the issue; Obama’s action mobilized evangelical and cultural conservatives and lessens the Republican’s need to cater to this constituency over the next several months.

These energized cultural conservatives now may turn out in larger numbers this fall. The gay-marriage issue makes less urgent the need to pacify the base, giving the Republican nominee more flexibility on agenda priorities and selecting a vice president.

The negatives, or downside, for both candidates also were on display. The president and top Democrats sought to portray his action as motivated by conscience and conviction. But at the same time, there were anonymous White House and Obama campaign attacks on Vice President Joe Biden for embracing same-sex marriage a few weeks ago and forcing the president to show his hand.

No wonder voters, in a New York Times poll last week, said they believe the president’s action was driven more by politics than principle. This is yet another example of self-inflicted damage by the clumsy Obama messaging team.

Romney’s hope to stay above the fray was dashed with the disclosure that he had bullied a gay schoolmate as an adolescent. It seems petty to hold a candidate’s actions of almost a half-century ago against him; Romney apologized if he offended anyone, then insisted he couldn’t remember the incident. That’s not credible.

The hypocrisy of both candidates surfaces in their positions on whether same-sex marriage is principally a federal or a state question.

Obama, while supporting gay marriage as the last moral civil-right issue, also says it remains up to the states to decide. Would he have said the same of voting rights or equal accommodations for people of color in the 1960s? That position is exactly what made the civil-rights movement necessary.

When convenient, Romney invokes states’ rights on matters such as health care, mainly to soften the opposition of conservatives to his signature achievement as governor of Massachusetts, a mandate for health insurance. He sings a different tune on same-sex marriage: He favors the federal marriage amendment that would supersede all state laws.

These contortions help explain why Romney and Obama want to minimize discussion of same-sex marriage and leave it to the activists to deliver evangelicals and young voters. The model, conventional wisdom says, is the 2004 presidential race, when 11 states had initiatives to block gay marriage on the ballot. Ohio was the most prominent and there were 500,000 more Republican votes than four years earlier, supposedly because the turnout among cultural conservatives was sparked by their opposition to same-sex marriage.

Yet Matthew Dowd, a chief strategist and pollster for President George W. Bush in that campaign, says that’s a myth. Turnout was up 5 percent in Ohio; it was up by about the same amount in comparable places with no gay-marriage initiative.

“Gay marriage initiatives in 2004 did not affect the turnout among conservative voters in any way,” he says.