WASHINGTON -- They hear that their cause is lost, that demographics and the march of history have doomed their campaign to keep marriage only between a man and a woman. But the young conservatives who oppose same-sex marriage -- unlike most of their generation -- remain undaunted.
They identify themselves as part of the "pro-marriage movement" and see themselves at the beginning of a long political struggle, much like the battle over abortion. If they can begin shifting the terms of the debate away from gay rights and toward the meaning of marriage, they say, they have a chance to survive short-term defeats.
"The primary challenge that our side faces right now is the intense social pressure," said Joseph Backholm, 34, the executive director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington. "To the extent that the other side is able to frame this as a vote for gay people to be happy, it will be challenging for us."
To put it another way, opponents of same-sex marriage say they must argue in favor of traditional marriage, not against gay people or gay rights. "It's really a broader defense of marriage and a stronger marriage culture," said Will Haun, 26, a lawyer and member of the Federalist Society.
In the highest-profile effort, the National Organization for Marriage is gearing up for a march on the National Mall on Tuesday, the day the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on California's 2008 voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage.
Last week, the Heritage Foundation released a report by Ryan T. Anderson, 31, in defense of traditional marriage,"Marriage: What It Is, Why It Matters, and the Consequences of Redefining It." Mr. Anderson, a Heritage Foundation fellow, has also held briefings for members of Congress, their staff and others to explain his arguments against same-sex marriage, and he and two co-authors released a book last year laying out their case in depth.
Still, the fight is shaping up to be a difficult one, with public opinion increasingly seeming to shift in favor of same-sex marriage. More than 100 high-profile Republicans recently filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to declare that gay couples have a constitutional right to marry. On Friday, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio became the only sitting Republican senator to publicly support same-sex marriage, citing his 21-year-old gay son, Will, as the catalyst.
Beyond Washington, polling has begun to show that a majority of Americans supports same-sex marriage, with even young Republicans moving in that direction. In a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted last month, 45 percent of Republicans between 18 and 44 years old said they thought same-sex couples should be able to marry -- a contrast with Republicans 45 and older, only 20 percent of whom agreed.
After repeated defeats at the ballot box in recent years, same-sex marriage went four for four in statewide votes in November, with victories in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington.
"Proponents of same-sex marriage have done a fantastic job of telling the story of same-sex marriage through music and television and film, " said Eric Teetsel, 29, the executive director of the Manhattan Declaration, which describes itself as a movement of Christians for life, marriage and religious freedom. "I think it's really a case where once they hear the other side of the issue, and really think about it deeply, we're going to win a lot of those folks back."
And the other side of the issue -- the case for what proponents call traditional marriage -- is simple, they say.
"In redefining marriage to include same-sex couples, what you're doing is you're excluding the norm of sexual complementarity," Mr. Anderson, the Heritage Foundation fellow, said. "Once you exclude that norm, the three other norms -- which are monogamy, sexual exclusivity and permanency -- become optional as well."
The result, proponents of traditional marriage say, would be further rises in divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births.
"When you de-link marriage from childbearing, you then have to increase the complexity of that relationship," said Caitlin Seery, 25, the director of programs for the Love and Fidelity Network, which works with college groups to advocate traditional marriage.
Proponents of same-sex marriage respond that no evidence links it to social ills and that, in fact, divorce rates are often lower in states more accepting of it. Moreover, they say, same-sex marriage fits with this country's long history of extending equal rights to groups once denied them.
For opponents, moving the debate away from those historical analogies is crucial.
"Most young people think if you come out with traditional marriage views, you're a bigot," said Thomas Peters, 27, the communications director for the National Organization for Marriage. "You can't have that many people in the shadows."
The issue, proponents of traditional marriage say, is one of presentation.
"These Republicans who are jumping ship are doing so because we have no way of messaging," said Ashley Pratte, 23, the executive director of Cornerstone Policy Research and Cornerstone Action, a New Hampshire group that focuses on social issues. "Do you want to tell your friends when you're out with them on a Friday night that they can't get married? No, you don't want to have that discussion, but you want to have a healthy discussion."
Opponents of same-sex marriage say they realize they may lose the current fight, but they optimistically take the long view, pointing to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case that legalized abortion. At the time, they say, opponents of abortion were told their cause was lost, but the fight continues 40 years later.
"If you take the longer view of history -- I'm not talking just 15 years, I'm talking 40 years or even 100 years -- I can't help but think that the uniqueness of man-woman marriage will be adjudicated over time," said Andrew Walker, 27, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.
Either way, they are not planning on giving up any time soon.
"Even if we are doomed, and I'm totally naïve, I think it's important that I do this work anyway," Mr. Teetsel, of the Manhattan Declaration, said. "If what I believe is true is true, then I've got a responsibility to be on its side for as long as I can be."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.