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Rob Portman fallout: How far is GOP from embracing gay rights? (+video)

Despite Republican Sen. Rob Portman endorsing gay rights Friday, the party is a long way from following him. But a shift in society could make the GOP temper is message.

Why Rob Portman now backs gay marriage
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As the Republican Party looks in the mirror in the wake of losing the presidential election last year, its assessment includes what to do about gay marriage, an issue the party has traditionally been against.

That might be changing somewhat. One of their own, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, is pushing the issue to the fore, becoming the highest-profile GOP lawmaker to lend support to gay marriage while in office.

His reversal on the issue Friday is significant considering he is one of the original backers of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in the 1990s and a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman in 2004.

DOMA is under review this month by the US Supreme Court. Senator Portman says that gay marriage should be an issue for states to decide and that federal law should not prohibit gay couples from receiving the same federal benefits that heterosexual married couples enjoy.

Portman’s position is similar to a small faction in his party, which includes former presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and party donor Foster Friess, who helped fund Rick Santorum's 2012 bid for president. They say that younger conservative voters are less bothered by gay marriage and that the party risks alienating future voters by presenting an all-or-nothing approach in its opposition to the issue.

“I do think the party is moving in that direction, and at some point it’s going to come to a head,” says Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist in Washington who once served as the press secretary to then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas. “My sense is that a platform fight within the party is still eight to 10 years away, but that moment is coming.”

The platform speeches at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this week in Maryland still suggest a party that remains in large opposition to gay marriage. Indeed, recent polls show that a small percentage of registered Republican voters – 23 percent in the latest Quinnipiac University poll – support same-sex marriage.

One idea for how to proceed could come from the party's libertarian wing, which says Republicans can opt out of the debate by reframing the issue as one of states' rights. This way, the party could satisfy its evangelical base by supporting traditional marriage while pleasing moderates who do not want the party to appear too obstructionist on social issues.

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