GOP senator shifts on gay marriage as party soul-searches

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WASHINGTON -- A Republican senator's embrace of gay marriage is the latest sign of soul-searching in a party struggling to adapt in a society whose demographics and views on emotional issues are changing fast.

Gay marriage still divides the party, with the conservative wing strongly opposed. But an increasing number of Republicans, now including Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, have reversed course. Others simply downplay the subject.

With the issue of immigration also shifting rapidly under Republicans' feet, they seem increasingly focused -- and united -- on one overarching goal: keeping income taxes from rising. Their solidarity on that is hindering President Barack Obama's efforts to make higher tax revenue part of a compromise on deficit spending and expensive social programs.

These trends raise the possibility that the GOP -- reeling after losing the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections -- will lessen its identity with hot-button social issues and sharpen its tax-and-spending emphasis.

Mr. Portman, who announced Friday that he now supports gay marriage, linked his stand to learning one of his sons is gay.

Mr. Portman's reversal makes him the only Senate Republican to openly back gay marriage.

"I have come to believe that if two people are prepared to make a lifetime commitment to love and care for each other in good times and in bad, the government shouldn't deny them the opportunity to get married," Mr. Portman wrote in an op-ed article in The Columbus Dispatch.

Mr. Portman said his prior marriage views were rooted in his Methodist faith. "Ultimately, for me, it came down to the Bible's overarching themes of love and compassion and my belief that we are all children of God," he wrote.

Despite GOP struggles with Americans' increasing acceptance of gay rights, many party leaders met Mr. Portman's news with silence or a shrug.

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who shares Mr. Portman's Cincinnati background, said the senator "is a great friend and ally, and the speaker respects his position, but the speaker continues to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman."

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday: "What is clear is that we are witnessing a pretty significant sociological shift in this country. It's happening right before our eyes in a way that says a lot about our country, that we have a country where we prioritize equality and fairness."

Mr. Obama last year said he supports gay marriage.

Polls show that public opinions on gay rights have shifted perhaps more rapidly than on any other major issue in recent times. In Gallup polling in November, 53 percent of adult Americans said same-sex marriages should be granted the same status as traditional marriages, while 46 percent felt that they should not be valid. Those figures were nearly reversed from two years earlier.

Many social and religious conservatives still oppose gay marriage. Some spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference, under way Friday in suburban Washington.

John Radell, head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition of Delaware, said Mr. Portman's personal situation was difficult, "but that doesn't mean you stray from your faith. I understand loving your son," he said. "But Sen. Portman represents more than his son." He said that "without question," Mr. Portman's shift would make his political future -- particularly any presidential aspirations -- more difficult.

Ohio GOP consultant Curt Steiner disagreed. "I think it's always good to be forthright with your positions," he said. "Some social conservatives will disagree with Rob Portman on this issue, but they understand the life that he leads, they understand his commitment to family, and they understand his commitment to them."



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