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Does the future of the GOP hinge on gay marriage?

As the Republican Party ponders and argues over its future following recent election losses, one social issue is becoming paramount: same-sex marriage, favored by increasing numbers of young conservatives as well as party operatives.

The future of the Republican Party – much debated since the GOP’s lackluster showing in last November’s election, and especially at the weekend conservative hootenanny called CPAC – is tied to a lot of things:

The extent to which it can attract young, Hispanic, and women voters now more likely to vote Democrat, how quickly the economy recovers (and who is given credit or blame, House Republicans or the White House), perceptions about the party’s concern for middle class and working class Americans – “the 47 percent” Mitt Romney disastrously derided during the presidential campaign.

But one issue is becoming increasingly important: same-sex marriage.

There’s a clear difference of opinion between younger and older voters, between younger and older elected Republicans, and certainly between social conservatives (in recent decades a key part of the GOP base) and those who confess to libertarian tendencies.

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Generation by generation, the differences can be subtle but perhaps crucial.

For his part, House Speaker John Boehner indicates no inclination to join the trend toward public acceptance of same-sex marriage – a trend highlighted by Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio just switching to the pro-gay-marriage camp as a sign of love and support for his gay son.

“Listen, I believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman,” Mr. Boehner said on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday. “All right. It’s what I grew up with. It’s what I believe. It’s what my church teaches me. And I can’t imagine that position would ever change.”

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (nearly two decades younger than Boehner) has a slightly different take.

Acknowledging that there’s “no doubt” that younger conservatives generally accept gay marriage, he told NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, “I think that’s all the more reason, when I talk about things, I talk about the economic and fiscal crisis in our state and in our country.”

“That’s what people want to resonate about,” Gov. Walker said. “They don’t want to get focused on those issues.”

In his much-watched speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Sen. Marco Rubio (younger still, and much-mentioned as a presidential candidate in 2016) essentially walked away from the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) – Washington defining marriage as one man and one woman.

“Just because I believe that states should have the right to define marriage in the traditional way does not make me a bigot,” he said – a not-so-subtle way of acknowledging that nine states and the District of Columbia already permit gay marriage and that DOMA is irrelevant, even though House Republicans (at Boehner’s direction) are defending the law in court because the Obama administration refuses to.

In a CPAC presidential straw poll Saturday, Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky edged out Rubio 25-23 percent. Significantly, 52 percent of those who voted were age 18-25 – a sign that the libertarian-leaning Sen. Paul (like his father former Rep. Ron Paul before him) will continue to be a force as the 2016 election approaches. It’s just the age bracket the GOP needs to attract, and it’s just the group inclined to have no problem with gay marriage.

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Sen. Paul’s position, as outlined in a web interview with National Review, is that he may be an “old-fashioned traditionalist” who believes in the “historic and religious definition of marriage.”

“That being said, I’m not for eliminating contracts between adults,” he said. “I think there are ways to make the tax code more neutral, so it doesn’t mention marriage. Then we don’t have to redefine what marriage is; we just don’t have marriage in the tax code.”

Conservative Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin agrees.

“Getting the federal government out of the marriage business, deferring to the states and allowing individuals to, as he says, enter into contracts with one another, can be the way out of the gay marriage thicket for the GOP,” she blogs. “Whatever the methodology, conservatives at the national level need to extract themselves from a losing battle that should not be within the purview of the federal government…. Paul is dead right: It is time for conservatives to move on and start focusing on issues that are properly the concern of elected leaders and on which the public actually wants government to act.”

Writing in The Columbus Dispatch newspaper Friday, Sen. Portman urged conservatives to see that gay couples’ desire to marry “doesn’t amount to a threat but rather a tribute to marriage, and a potential source of renewed strength for the institution.”

“We conservatives believe in personal liberty and minimal government interference in people’s lives. We also consider the family unit to be the fundamental building block of society,” he wrote. “We should encourage people to make long-term commitments to each other and build families, so as to foster strong, stable communities and promote personal responsibility.”

That’s undoubtedly way too much of a stretch for the GOP’s social conservatives, especially religious traditionalists. But given the trends in public attitudes, it may be inevitable.

“Far from touching off a Beltway political firestorm, Portman’s announcement that he has a gay son and now supports same-sex marriage drew a muted or even positive response from his fellow members of the Republican elite,” writes Alexander Burns on Politico. “The reality Portman’s flip-flop exposed is this: among the Republican political community, the people who actually run campaigns and operate super PACs, support for gay marriage is almost certainly a solid majority position. Among strategists born after the end of the Vietnam War, it’s not even a close call.”