While many Republicans consider the sudden emergence of gay marriage as an issue in the 2012 presidential campaign an unhelpful distraction, social conservatives Sunday insisted the Obama administration has given presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney an opportunity.
“I think the president this past week took six or seven states he carried in 2008 and put them in play with this one ill-conceived position that he’s taken,” American Values President Gary Bauer said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“I think that Barack Obama has helped fit that missing piece of intensity that Mitt Romney is going to need,” Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Christian organization Family Research Council, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Gay marriage is suddenly the country’s hottest political talking point after Mr. Obama last week said he now personally supports same-sex marriages — though he said the legality of such unions should be decided by individual states.
Mr. Romney, who once argued in Massachusetts that he would be a better advocate for gay rights than Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, quickly drew a sharp contrast with the president on the issue, insisting that marriage is “one man, one woman.”
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, echoing earlier comments from fellow Republican John A. Boehner of Ohio, the speaker of the House, said on CNN the gay-marriage issue is “an attempt to distract the country from [Mr. Obama’s] record.”
“He’s trying to raise divisive issues up to solidify his base and to divide the country, and that isn’t what we should be focusing on now. We should be focusing on jobs and the economy,” the Texas Republican said.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that voters who consider gay marriage a key issue now “have a clear choice” in November.
Mr. Romney reiterated his position over the weekend with a commencement address to graduating seniors at Liberty University, the conservative Christian university in Virginia founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. in 1971.
“Culture — what you believe, what you value, how you live — matters,” Mr. Romney told graduates gathered in the football stadium on Liberty’s campus.
The former Massachusetts governor, a Mormon who has struggled to connect with evangelical Christians, drew sustained applause when he said unequivocally: “Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.”
The school has become a bellwether for spiritual thinking in fundamentalist and evangelical Christian circles and a powerhouse in state and national politics.
Jerry Falwell Jr., the school’s chancellor, has carried on his father’s push to get evangelicals involved in politics by aggressively pushing to register the school’s more than 12,000 students to vote. In previous elections, the school has even canceled classes and lined up buses to shuttle students back to and from polling places.
This year, for the first time ever, students had the chance in the Republican primary election to cast their vote at a polling place on campus. And more votes were cast there than at any other polling precinct in the state, according to the Virginia State Board of Elections.
That kind of on-the-ground energy is symbolic of the enthusiasm and energy that Christian conservatives can inject into a campaign, making it a key constituency for Mr. Romney.
He struggled to excite them in the primary, thanks to his evolving position on abortion and concerns about his Mormon religion, which fed into a lingering skepticism among evangelicals about whether he is truly committed to their causes.
As a result, many voted for Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, who consistently touted his support of traditional marriage and pro-life stance on the campaign trail, helping him outperform Mr. Romney again and again in states where exit polls showed that more than half the electorate called itself evangelical or born-again Christian.
Even when Mr. Romney won the Virginia primary in March, thanks to the absence of Mr. Santorum and conservative rival Newt Gingrich, he lost at the ballot box on the campus at Liberty to Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, by a 60 percent to 40 percent margin.
“Santorum was this group’s preferred candidate in the primaries, and so far, there still isn’t much enthusiasm for Romney,” Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics said of conservative Christian voters. “Romney needs big margins in places like Lynchburg to overcome Obama’s margins in Northern Virginia and elsewhere.”
Mr. Obama’s announcement last week, though, has given Mr. Romney another chance to get conservative Christians jazzed about his candidacy.
“I think just that announcement has driven hundreds, if not thousands, of people to Mitt Romney or a lot closer than they would be,” said Zach Martin, executive director of the College Republicans at Liberty University.
Democrats on Sunday defended the president’s decision to embrace same-sex marriage. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” said there was “no political calculus in this, because it’s not smart.”
“If he’s going to do it from a political point of view, it doesn’t make any sense,” she said.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said the president acted on his convictions.
“Mitt Romney has occupied many positions on many issues, and back in 1994 when he was running for the U.S. Senate, he said publicly that he would be better than Ted Kennedy on gay and lesbian issues,” Mr. Patrick said. “He takes a different position in front of a different audience today.”