Gay marriage fraught with danger for 2016 Republican presidential field

Republican presidential hopefuls are facing a delicate dance on gay marriage going into 2016 — even as their potential Democratic opponents embrace an issue once fraught with political danger.

Former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonVulnerable NH Republican ties reelection bid to Trump Top five Supreme Court cases to watch this term Trump gives Lester Holt a C grade for debate MORE’s declaration this week that she favors gay marriage highlighted the new practical reality for Democrats with White House ambitions — that after President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage in 2012, it’s no longer safe in the party’s primary to waffle.

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But for GOP contenders, the political ground continues to shift. Even as support for gay marriage grows in the broader electorate, the party’s evangelical base remains vehemently opposed.

Social conservatives traditionally turn out at high levels in early primary and caucus states, making it extremely risky for a Republican to navigate gay rights in general, and gay marriage in particular.

“Any presidential candidate seeking the Republican Party nomination in 2016 has to be very careful not to poke a stick in the eye of that base vote in any state,” said Gary Marx, executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

If the Republican party “abandons marriage evangelicals will either sit the elections out completely — or move to create a third party,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. “Either option puts Republicans on the path to a permanent minority.”

Speaker John BoehnerJohn Boehner3 ways the next president can succeed on immigration reform Republican Study Committee elders back Harris for chairman Dems to GOP: Help us fix ObamaCare MORE (R-Ohio) authorized $3 million in spending to defend the Defense of Marriage Act before the Supreme Court next week — highlighting the importance the GOP places on defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

But if it’s politically risky for a major Republican candidate to back gay marriage, it’s also problematic to staunchly oppose it.

A Washington Post poll showed support for legalizing gay marriage at an all-time high of 58 percent, with 52 percent of Republicans between the ages of 18 and 29 indicating support for legalizing gay marriage.

Sen. Rob PortmanRob PortmanSenate Dems shun GOP vulnerables Grassley accuses Reid of 'pure unfiltered partisanship' Senate passes funding bill to avoid shutdown MORE’s (R-Ohio) announcement last week that he favors gay marriage made him the first GOP senator to do so, following recent moves by several other prominent Republicans.

Former presidential candidate Jon Huntsman last month announced he supported gay marriage, saying there “is nothing conservative about denying other Americans the ability to forge that same relationship with the person they love.”

And dozens of prominent Republicans — including Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.) and Richard Hanna (N.Y.) — signed a legal brief arguing gay couples have the constitutional right to marry.

Gregory Angelo, executive director for the pro-gay-rights group Log Cabin Republicans, said that “the popular sentiment on this issue is moving so quickly in the direction of support that the GOP is playing catch-up.”

“Because the Democratic Party has essentially had the monopoly on a lot of gay voters, the Republican Party has had some difficulty making inroads with them,” he added.

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Among Democrats weighing a 2016 bid, Clinton, Vice President Biden, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley all back gay marriage.

On the GOP side, none of the high-profile hopefuls does.

Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioLanny Davis: Clinton a clear winner, with or without sound Could Snapchat be the digital bridge to younger voters? Koch-linked veterans group launches ads in Senate battlegrounds MORE (R-Fla.) touted the importance of a strong family in his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference last week and said that opposing gay marriage “doesn’t make me a bigot.”

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is opposed.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would have legalized marriage in his state last year.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is opposed to gay marriage, but said in a recent interview that loving gay parents “should be held up as examples for others to follow.”

Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulLawmaker seeks to investigate Obama's foreign tax compliance law Funding bill rejected as shutdown nears GOP senators hit FBI on early probe of NY bombing suspect MORE (Ky.) is personally against to gay marriage. But he said in his CPAC speech that the GOP “is encumbered by an inconsistent approach to freedom.”

Paul said the GOP needs “to embrace liberty in both the economic and personal sphere.”

The Supreme Court ruling on two gay-marriage cases, likely to come in late June, could change the landscape of the fight going into 2014 and 2016.

A court decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act could invigorate grassroots groups opposed to gay marriage to support ballot measures banning it.

Such a ruling could also bring the issue front and center during presidential primary and general debates in 2016, which would force candidates to take distinct sides — opening them up to criticism from both the right and left.

The conundrum for Republican candidates begins in Iowa, where evangelical voters made up 56 percent of GOP caucus-goers in 2012, according to exit polling. In South Carolina’s Republican primary, they made up 64 percent.

Though gay marriage may present an obstacle in early 2016 primaries, there were signs at CPAC that the issue might not be one that wins with the GOP overall.

Conference organizers left it off the straw poll ballot, despite polling on other issues.

Margaret Hoover, a top aide to the pro-gay-rights super-PAC American Unity, said there’s a growing distaste among Republicans to fight this battle.

She said that while American Unity would be willing to play in 2016 in support of any pro-gay-marriage candidates, “we might not exist” by then because of the fast rate in which public opinion is moving in favor of marriage.

“This issue is increasingly not a motivating issue for social conservatives,” she said. “One of the thing we’ve seen is many social conservatives saying, ‘we don’t want to fight on this issue.’ ”