Romney reaffirmed his opposition to gay marriage. “I believe that marriage has been defined the same way for literally thousands of years by virtually every civilization in history and that marriage is by its definition a relationship between a man and woman,” Romney said Thursday on Fox News. But he added that same-sex couples should have the right to adopt children and start families, adding that the marriage issue was “tender and sensitive.”
Those sensitivities reach deep into Romney’s coalition. Some top Republicans described a growing divide within the GOP, with most of the party’s elected leaders in step with the social conservative base by publicly opposing same-sex marriage but softening their tone to avoid alienating the moderate middle.
Some of Romney’s biggest financial backers — including Lewis M. Eisenberg, a former Republican National Committee finance chairman, and hedge fund managers Paul Singer and Daniel S. Loeb — have become public advocates for gay marriage, as have other Romney supporters, including former vice president Dick Cheney and former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton.
Behind the scenes, influential donors and top strategists are counseling Republican candidates to avoid hot rhetoric or stigmatizing gay people, fearing a potential backlash from voters, who, polling suggests, are fast growing more open to gay marriage.
Steve Schmidt, a strategist for John McCain’s 2008 campaign as well as Bush’s campaigns, said Obama’s announcement Wednesday drew attention to “deep division” within the GOP on the issue.
“This really spotlights a fissure in the Republican Party between the southern evangelical wing of the party — where they don’t mind government intrusion into the bedroom and into individuals’ private space — and the limited-government side of the party,” Schmidt said. “Looking back at this from 50 years in the future, people who are on the wrong side of this issue aren’t going to stand very well in history’s light.”
Ed Gillespie, a senior Romney adviser, said Thursday on MSNBC that gay marriage would be a campaign issue because “it engenders strong feelings on both sides.” But, he added, “it’s important to be, you know, respectful in how we talk about our differences.”
On the campaign trail Thursday in Nebraska, Romney didn’t talk about those differences at all. Although the issue could help unite social conservatives behind his candidacy, Republican strategists said they see it as a distraction from Romney’s core message on the economy, the issue on which they believe he can beat Obama.