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On gay marriage, political ground shifts rapidly: Will Supreme Court take note?

The US Supreme Court this week takes up two key gay marriage cases. Public opinion is changing rapidly here – a particular challenge for Republicans trying to rebrand their party.

As elected officials and pundits wait to hear US Supreme Court arguments in two gay marriage cases this week, they find the political ground on this hottest of social issues rapidly shifting beneath them.

Headlines in recent days tell the story: “Support for gay marriage is soaring” (Washington Post) “Why Republicans Are Saying ‘I Do’ to Gay Marriage” (Time) “The Normalization of Gay Marriage” (The Atlantic) “Millennial Support For Gay Marriage Hits All-Time High” (Huffington Post)

The stories and the shift in public opinion they reflect are most challenging to Republicans.

When Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio came out for same-sex marriage recently (because his son is gay), fellow Republicans professed their personal support for him while gently disagreeing with his newly-declared stance.

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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – who faces re-election this year and is considered to be a strong possible candidate for president in 2016 – wrestled rhetorically over whether he would sign a proposed law outlawing so-called “conversion therapy,” the controversial practice which seeks to make those who see themselves as homosexual “convert” to heterosexuals.

“I’m of two minds just on this stuff in general. No. 1, I think there should be lots of deference given to parents on raising their children,” Gov. Christie said at a news conference last week. “I don’t – this is a general philosophy, not to his bill – generally, philosophically, on bills that restrict parents’ ability to make decisions on how to care for their children, I’m generally a skeptic of those bills. Now there can always be exceptions to those rules, and this bill may be one of them.”

Ohio Gov. John Kasich said he was for civil unions, but (through a spokesman) quickly retracted that.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia tried to deflect the issue with a quip that drew snickers: “I’m not gay, so I’m not going to marry one.” 

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky – a hot prospect for the 2016 presidential race – fell back on his libertarian/states right leanings. “I don’t want the government promoting something I don’t believe in, but I also don’t mind if the government tries to be neutral on the issue,” he told Fox News Sunday – which would mean that the Defense of Marriage Act or DOMA (one of the Supreme Court cases) would no longer apply.

Ken Mehlman, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and head of the 2004 Bush re-election campaign who came out of the closet in 2010, gathered signatures from 131 prominent Republicans to file a friend-of-the-court brief in the other case before the Supreme Court – a challenge to California’s Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure which defines marriage in the state constitution as a legal union of one man and one woman.

Asked on Fox News Sunday if he could imagine the next Republican nominee for the White House supporting gay marriage, Karl Rove said he can.

Margaret Hoover, a former George W. Bush White House aide and a leading Republican Party operative, agrees.

“At the rate this issue is changing within the party, I think it’s not out of the question,” she told Time.

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According to the polls the issue is changing more rapidly with the public than it is with the GOP.

Some 58 percent of Americans now say gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to get married, according to the latest Washington Post/ABC poll. Nine years ago, support for gay marriage was just 32 percent, and just three years ago it was less than half at 47 percent.

Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center finds that among “millenials” (those born after 1980), support has soared to 70 percent from 51 percent when President Obama took office in 2009. The Post/ABC poll finds that 81 percent of adults under 30 support same-sex marriage. As Pew points out, millenials as a portion of the adult population have grown from 9 percent to 27 percent over the past decade.

None of this is news to the GOP, which clearly lost this portion of the electorate in last year’s presidential election, when the party platform advocated a marriage amendment to the Constitution and defended the Boy Scouts of America’s ban on gay scouts and troop leaders.

Today, the party’s effort to rebrand itself assumes a softer tone regarding gay rights as part of an overall effort to appear (if not become) more inclusive. At the Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush – another possible presidential candidate in 2016 – chided his party for appearing to be “anti-everything,” including “anti-gay.”

Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus took the same tack in comments to reporters this past week.

“I think Senator Portman made some pretty big inroads last week,” Mr. Priebus said. “I think it’s about being decent. I think it’s about dignity and respect, that nobody deserves to have their dignity diminished, or people don’t deserve to be disrespected. I think that there isn’t anyone in this room – Republican, Democrat, in the middle – that doesn’t think that Rob Portman, for example, is a good, conservative Republican. He is. And we know that.”