April 19, 2009— -- Gay marriage has long been a divisive and partisan issue with the most vocal opponents coming from the Republican Party.
But now, in the wake of recent state decisions in favor of gay marriage, some high profile members of the GOP are trying to change that, among them, Meghan McCain, the daughter of the party's favorite maverick.
The 24-year-old McCain was the keynote speaker at an event this weekend hosted by the Log Cabin Republicans, a conservative gay rights group.
McCain's message: "I think government is best when it stays out of people's lives and business as much as possible. I love punk rock. I believe in a strong national defense. I have a tattoo. I believe government should always be efficient and accountable. I have lots of gay friends. And yes, I am a Republican."
While she didn't go so far as to come out explicity in support of gay marriage, her father's former campaign manager, Steve Schmidt, who also spoke at the event, did just that.
"It cannot be argued that marriage between people of the same sex is un-American or threatens the rights of others," he said.
And in doing so, he took on the party's powerful religious right.
"If you put public policy issues to a religious test you risk becoming a religious party, and in a free country, a political party cannot remain viable in the long term if it is seen as sectarian," he said.
The comments from McCain and Schmidt come in the wake of three recent wins for the gay marriage movement.
Vermont became the first state to legalize same sex marriage through the legislature, not the courts.
And in Washington, D.C., the city council voted to recognize same sex marriages conducted outside the state -- a decision that could elevate the issue up to the U.S. Senate.
Polls show that most Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, oppose gay marriage. But it's in the GOP where the issue has recently come to the fore, with some saying the party must distance itself from the religious right if it's going to find its way out of the political wilderness.
Navigating that journey could be difficult and Meghan McCain warned of a split, without parsing her words.
"Old-school Republicans," she said, "are scared s--tless."
But those so-called old-school Republicans are standing their ground. The National Organization for Marriage recently released an ominous ad, warning of the dangers of same sex marriage.
"We're not giving up on this marriage thing; I'll tell you that," NOM president Maggie Gallagher said. "I just think that the idea to make a marriage you need a husband and a wife -- ths has been true in virtually every known human society."
But political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says despite the Republicans' current identity crisis, social conservatives -- many of whom are opposed to gay marriage -- still make up the base of the party, and as a result the GOP is unlikely to change its position on gay marriage.
"The Republican Party knows which side of the debate it comes down on there," Rothenberg said. "The question is do they talk about that, do they tear themselves apart over that, discussing that, or do they focus on their differences with [President] Obama."
How the party answers that question could shape the face and future of the GOP.