During a routine campaign stop Monday in Manchester, N.H., Mitt Romney warmly greeted a flannel-clad Vietnam War veteran at a cafe. But the man, Bob Garon, proceeded to excoriate Romney for backing laws that define marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman and bar same-sex married couples from receiving spousal benefits.
“A veteran and a spouse would not be entitled to any burial benefits, or medical benefits, or anything that the serviceman has devoted his time and effort to his country. And you just don’t support equality in terms of same-sex marriage?” said Garon, 63, who was having breakfast with his husband.
“I believe that marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman,” Romney replied, adding: “We apparently disagree on that.”
As the GOP candidates try to win over voters face to face, they are finding themselves confronted forcefully and repeatedly on an issue that ranks low as a national priority compared with the economy but high on the emotional scale. And their sometimes unsteady responses are being circulated almost instantly on the Internet.
The GOP candidates have been more sure-footed on the economy than on divisive social issues such as illegal immigration. But illegal immigrants are unlikely to confront a candidate in person, while people who feel affronted by the candidates’ views on gay rights have not hesitated to publicly air their grievances.
“People are outraged that these candidates are actively supporting discrimination and stirring the pot, so people are rightly speaking up for themselves and wanting to make the candidates’ lives a bit difficult,” said Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the gay rights organization Human Rights Campaign, which has endorsed President Obama for reelection.
Gay rights may be gaining prominence, in part, because the first nominating contests are taking place in Iowa and New Hampshire, two states where same-sex marriages became legal following the 2008 presidential election. Conservatives in both states are now trying to reverse course, with lawmakers in New Hampshire set to vote next month on whether to replace same-sex marriage with civil unions.
Americans have become more accepting of gay rights in the past five years. A slim majority support same-sex marriage, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released in March. And 77 percent of respondents to a December 2010 poll said they believe gays and lesbians should be permitted to serve openly in the military. That poll was released days before the House voted to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.”