HARRISBURG -- In attempting to explain one controversy related to his administration's defense of a law forbidding same-sex marriage, Gov. Tom Corbett stumbled into another on Friday.
A slew of Democratic gubernatorial opponents wasted no time pouncing on Mr. Corbett's remarks on a Harrisburg morning show, calling his words demeaning and offensive.
In the interview, Mr. Corbett was asked about a recent legal filing by state attorneys against a Montgomery County clerk who was issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples; the brief said the licenses were not valid, making the comparison that licenses issued to children also would not be valid.
"It was an inappropriate analogy. I think a much better analogy would have been brother and sister, don't you?" the governor said to the host.
"I don't know. I don't know," she said. "I'm going to leave the comments to you and your team," she said, laughing nervously and putting a straightened arm toward the governor.
The remark was seized upon by Democrats, and by mid-morning Friday it was getting wide attention in social media and national headlines.
Several Democratic gubernatorial candidates, such as Allyson Schwartz, Katie McGinty, Rob McCord, John Hanger, Ed Pawlowski and Tom Wolf issued statements condemning his remarks.
Mr. Corbett's office issued an apology and clarification later in the day.
"During a recent interview, I was asked to comment on the ruling by [Commonwealth Court President] Judge [Dan] Pellegrini that the Montgomery County Clerk of Courts did not have the power to decide the constitutionality of state laws," the statement said. "My words were not intended to offend anyone. If they did, I apologize.
"I explained that current Pennsylvania statute delineates categories of individuals unable to obtain a marriage license. As an example, I cited siblings as one such category, which is clearly defined in state law. My intent was to provide an example of these categories.
"The constitutional question is now before a federal court and that is the venue in which same-sex couples wishing to legally marry have standing to intervene and be heard. Same-sex marriage is an important issue and the question of its legal status is one that will be heard and decided upon its merits, with respect and compassion shown to all sides."
A 1996 state law outlaws same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania, but that law is currently being challenged in federal court.
The controversy is a setback for the governor, just as Mr. Corbett was beginning to see some political momentum, rolling out his Healthy PA Medicaid overhaul and hiring several new top communications advisers, said pollster Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College.
The governor's remarks seem to speak to his background as a prosecutor, Mr. Madonna said.
"What's missing here is a clear sense about the human, personal side [of the gay marriage issue]," Mr. Madonna said.
The comments could be harmful with independent and more moderate suburban voters who tend to be more culturally liberal, he said.
"You run the risk of alienating those voters. You run the risk of energizing the opposition and discouraging your base. ... Given the way this is being portrayed, it's hard to imagine this being helpful."
Kate Giammarise: email@example.com, 1-717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.