The resignation of Richard Grenell, the recently appointed and openly gay foreign policy spokesman for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, was as sudden as it was shocking. It was also yet another disturbing sign that the Romney campaign is still in pander mode when it comes to the anti-gay right.

Which is exactly the wrong direction for the presumptive GOP nominee to be moving in. Because according to a wide variety of poll data, Republican voters, unlike most of the politicians vying for their support, largely support gay rights.

When Grenell’s appointment was announced last month, most observers took it as a sign that Romney was starting to move to the center to win moderate and independent voters in November, a welcome change after a Republican primary process often dominated by religious-right candidates such as Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum.

But the shift to the middle, a smart and necessary political play for Romney, didn’t last long. Even though Grenell had previously served as a spokesman at the United Nations for President George W. Bush and then-Ambassador John R. Bolton, a darling of most conservatives, from the moment he was appointed to the Romney campaign, he was vilified for his sexual orientation — irrelevant, of course, to the policy area for which he was chosen.

Some of the most strident and vicious attacks came from Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, which is officially designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Fischer, who called the appointment of a gay spokesman a national security risk, has racked up a breathtaking record of anti-gay, anti-minority and anti-Muslim statements over the past few years, including calling gay people domestic terrorists and stating that the anti-Muslim views of Anders Breivik, the gunman who killed 77 people in Norway last year, were “accurate.”

Fischer and his ilk should be shunned by self-respecting religious-right organizations, but he is a regular speaker on the social conservative and “values voters” conference circuit. He has also hosted a variety of Republican presidential contenders on his radio show, including Santorum and Herman Cain. Fischer not only called on Romney to fire Grenell, he also issued a list of other demands that the candidate must meet to demonstrate his commitment to the “family values” crowd. Not surprisingly, when he learned of Grenell’s resignation, he called it a “huge win” for the religious right.

Unfortunately, the Romney campaign seems to have caved in to Fischer and his followers. Though Grenell was not fired, and after his departure Romney and campaign staffers have spoken highly of him, there was no strong public defense while he was under attack. This fits in well with Romney’s history of pandering to the religious right. He seems to think that a Republican with presidential aspirations must get people like Fischer on his side. Especially because, when governor of Massachusetts, Romney backed socially tolerant policies regarding gay rights, including the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a federal bill that would outlaw private-sector job discrimination based on sexual orientation, and the eventual end of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Romney seems to be all over the map on gay rights, depending on what audience he’s addressing. In 2002, he stated his support for domestic partnership rights such as health benefits and inheritance rights, and last October in New Hampshire, he said he supports “partnership agreements” incorporating limited legal rights for gay couples.

But in August, he signed a pledge from the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage promising to support a federal amendment to ban same-sex marriage, defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court, nominate Supreme Court justices who oppose gay marriage and even establish a presidential commission on “religious liberty” to investigate alleged threats against opponents of same-sex marriage. He has reiterated those views in nearly every Republican presidential debate since then.

Yet in nearly every primary, he lost the evangelical vote to other, more authentic candidates such as Santorum, who emerged as the clear favorite of the anti-gay movement after most of the other contenders dropped out. Inexplicably, Romney still seems to crave its support and is apparently willing to do almost anything to get it.

The great irony in Romney’s search for that holy grail is that most rank-and-file Republicans are on the opposite side of the gay rights issue than the far right. For at least 20 years, for example, polling by Gallup has shown that more than 80 percent of Americans favor nondiscrimination in employment for gays and lesbians. Gallup’s and Newsweek’s 2008 polls on this question showed support at nearly 90 percent, including a large majority of Republicans. A 2007 survey by GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio showed that an overwhelming 77 percent of Republicans back nondiscrimination policies.

But Republican support for gay rights doesn’t stop there. In a 2008 Washington Post-ABC News poll, 75 percent of Americans, including about 66 percent of conservatives and about 75 percent of independents, supported allowing openly gay service members into our armed forces, while a 2010 Gallup poll showed 70 percent of voters, including 53 percent of conservatives, in favor of repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Even when it comes to relationship recognition for gay couples, as far back as 2004, a CBS News poll showed that 46 percent of Republicans backed either civil unions or same-sex marriage, and that support has continued to grow. A CBS News poll in August 2010 showed 59 percent of Republicans supporting either same-sex marriage or civil unions (25 percent backed marriage, 34 percent civil unions). A May 2011 survey by Public Policy Polling showed a majority of Republicans, 51 percent, in favor of either same-sex marriage (12 percent) or civil unions (39 percent).

GOP support for marriage equality is also getting stronger. A Pew Research poll from last year showed about 25 percent of Republicans favoring it, while a Public Religion Research Institute poll, also from 2011, found an astounding 37 percent of Republicans favoring same-sex marriage.

While the percentage of Republicans supporting same-sex marriage varies from poll to poll, all show a clear majority of Republicans in favor of some form of legal recognition for gay couples, even if it’s not their most important concern when casting their votes. That’s the problem — and that’s why there are stark differences in what Republican voters tell pollsters they want vs. the kind of anti-gay rhetoric that the religious right stirs up in politicians. It is as if GOP leaders are so busy trying to mollify the right-wing anti-gay movement that they are unaware of the growing tolerance within their party.

Religious extremists such as Fischer, Tony Perkins from the Family Research Council and James Dobson from Focus on the Family are wildly out of touch with average Americans on the issue of legal equality for gay men and lesbians. That gap will continue to grow as pro-gay younger voters, including Republicans, replace those who went before them.

After Grenell stepped down from the Romney campaign, one pundit wrote that anti-gay conservatives had claimed a scalp, and that is a very apt analogy. Grenell, on the other hand, thanked Romney and the campaign, and emphasized that his sexual orientation was a “non-issue” for them. In an interview Friday, Romney said that Grenell is “a very accomplished spokesperson” and that “we wanted him to stay with our team.” But what if Romney had given an interview calling Grenell “very accomplished” and insisting that the attacks on him should stop — before he left the campaign?

On May 12, Romney is set to deliver the commencement address at Liberty University, the religious-right stronghold founded by the late Jerry Falwell. He can either continue to pander to those whose primary goal is to construct an American theocracy, or he can use the address to fashion his own Sister Souljah moment and make clear the distinction between private religious values and the time-honored principle of separation of church and state.

To win the support of independents and moderates, Romney needs to stake out a pro-gay-rights position on at least some issues, such as opposition to a federal marriage amendment and support for anti-discrimination measures. His record on these issues, unfortunately, does not bode well for his doing not only the right thing, but the politically smart thing.

David Lampo, a member of the Log Cabin Republicans, is the author of the forthcoming book “A Fundamental Freedom: Why Republicans, Conservatives and Libertarians Should Support Gay Rights.”

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