How Deep Is the GOP's Shift on Gay Marriage?

"I just know that the people that I meet who are gay, including my brother-in-law and his partner, and my wife is very active in the art community, and we meet a lot of people that are gay, I think, number one, it's our responsibility to love them," he said. "That's the bottom line."

Friess did not say whether he would support gay marriage, but he said that the Republican Party should show a greater level of respect to gays and lesbians.

"When you talk about the party, that's the problem because there isn't any unified message," Friess said. "You've got people who are gay-bashers, who forget that these are human beings that need love just like all of us need love. We have to be sensitive to that."

The shift comes at a time when public opinion, and many others in the Republican Party have begun to move in favor of gay-rights.

More than 100 well-known Republicans, including top Romney campaign adviser Beth Myers, signed a legal brief last month that urges the Supreme Court to grant same-sex couples the right to wed under the Constitution. Former GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) have backed gay marriage as well.

Public opinion has also shifted in favor of gay marriage in the past two years. Fifty-one percent of Americans backed gay marriage in a November ABC News/Washington Post poll, and majorities have supported it in five straight polls since 2011. So, while personal connections may have sparked GOP officials to change their tune, it's also a sign of the changing times.

"Today twice as many people support marriage for same-sex couples as when the Defense of Marriage Act was signed into law 17 years ago by President Bill Clinton, who now opposes it," Portman wrote in the Dispatch. "With the overwhelming majority of young people in support of allowing gay couples to marry, in some respects the issue has become more generational than partisan."

Jimmy LaSalvia, executive director of the gay Republican group GOProud, put it more bluntly.

"There are a few in our movement who just don't like gay people," he said during a panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) about gay rights on Thursday. "And in 2013, that's just not OK."

But that doesn't mean that the Republican Party and the conservative movement is ready to just abandon its long-held stances on gay rights. Majorities of self-described Democrats and independents back gay marriage, but only 31 percent of Republicans support it, while two-thirds say they oppose it, according to the ABC/Post poll.

A full-tilt embrace of gay marriage could alienate many of the social conservative voters that the Republican Party depends on in elections.

"You're gonna have to show me how you're gonna replace those 30 million social conservatives and evangelicals that are gonna leave the party" if Republicans back gay marriage," National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg said on the panel.

A bellwether of the GOP's struggle with gay rights was evident at CPAC on Thursday. Even though LaSalvia was able to participate on a panel, organizers decided not to formally invite his group to the annual confab.

While Republicans grapple with the issues, more may adopt the position of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) Rubio remains an opponent of gay marriage, but said during his speech to CPAC that states should decide their own marriage laws.

"Just because I believe that states should have the right to define marriage in the traditional way does not make me a bigot," Rubio said.

But as conservative writers like Philip Klein and Matt Lewis noted, that's still a sign that the gay-marriage debate has shifted. Just nine years ago, President George W. Bush was pushing for a federal amendment that would ban gay marriage, which became the de facto position of the GOP.

"[Yet,] the debate has shifted dramatically in the intervening years. That's why it was eye-opening to hear Rubio['s comments]," Klein wrote.

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