NEW ORLEANS, LA - JUNE 18: Texas governor Rick Perry speaks during the 2011 Republican Leadership Conference on June 18, 2011 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The 2011 Republican Leadership Conference features keynote addresses from most of the major republican candidates for president as well as numerous republican leaders from across the country. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Same-sex marriage might seem like a straightforward issue: You're for it or against it. Yet for the field of Republican presidential hopefuls, it's proving to be an awkward topic as public attitudes change and more states legalize gay unions, the latest being New York.
Numerous recent polls suggest a slim majority of Americans now back gay marriage. Support is highest among Democrats, but is growing across the political spectrum even while religious conservatives -- a key part of the GOP primary electorate -- remain largely opposed.
The result, according to political analysts from both major parties, is a dilemma for the leading GOP candidates, most of whom oppose same-sex marriage but tend to avoid raising the topic unless asked.
"They see the polling -- more and more Republicans are supporting gay marriage," said David Welch, a former research director for the Republican National Committee. "It puts them in an awkward position with the younger members of the party and also with independents whose votes you need to win."
Richard Socarides, a former Clinton White House adviser on gay rights, said the political climate has changed rapidly and dramatically as leading Democrats celebrate the advent of gay marriage in New York and the imminent end of the ban on gays serving openly in the military under President Barack Obama.
"It's now advantageous for Democrats to support gay rights, and a net negative for Republicans to oppose them," Socarides said. "It's become extremely complicated for many of the Republican candidates who are used to using anti-gay rhetoric as a way to gin up their base."
Obama, though still not ready to endorse gay marriage, says he's "evolving" on the issue and is supporting a bill that would extend federal recognition to same-sex couples who marry in the six states that allow it.
New Hampshire is among those six states and also home to the first Republican primary next winter. According to conservative activists in the state, none of the major GOP presidential candidates has yet taken a public position on the ongoing effort by some Republican legislators to repeal the 2009 state law legalizing same-sex marriage.
Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, predicted that most of the GOP contenders would continue trying to dodge the issue because of lukewarm public support for repeal.
However, David Bates, one of the lawmakers pushing for the repeal, says he and his colleagues intend to put some heat on the GOP contenders by scheduling debate on the repeal bill in the weeks leading up to the primary.
"We will be seeing to it that each candidate addresses it," Bates said. "They will not be able to duck it."
In Iowa, where social conservatives are likely to play a key role in the GOP caucus next winter, two candidates -- Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania -- both signed a pledge denouncing same-sex marriage rights. Former governors Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty were among those refusing to sign the pledge, but both issued statements stressing that they favored limiting marriage to one-man, one-woman unions.
Among the other major GOP candidates, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman stands out as supporting civil unions, which would extend marriage-like rights to same-sex couples. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a favorite of many libertarians, says he supports the right of states to legalize same-sex marriage but opposes any effort to require recognition of those unions on a national level.
Both Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry -- a possible contender -- have said they respect the rights of individual states to legalize same-sex marriage, yet both also say they would support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would define marriage nationally as limited to heterosexual couples.
For Perry in particular, that stance involved some scrambling after he won applause at a Republican conference in Colorado on July 22 for his remarks about New York's same-sex marriage law.
"That's New York, and that's their business, and that's fine with me," said Perry, who was highlighting his support for states' rights.
Some leading social conservatives were dismayed by such comments from Perry, who they have strongly supported over the years. Eager to soothe the concerns, Perry did a broadcast interview Thursday with Tony Perkins of the conservative Family Research Council to clarify his Colorado remarks and make clear he still supported the federal marriage amendment.
"I probably needed to add a few words after that `It's fine with me,"' Perry said. "Obviously gay marriage is not fine with me. My stance hasn't changed. I believe marriage is a union between one man and one woman."
Bachmann built her political career in Minnesota on staunch advocacy of socially conservative positions, including opposition to abortion and gay marriage. In recent days, however, she has balked at answering questions about various gay-related topics, including reports that her husband's Christian counseling clinic has tried to convert gay patients away from homosexuality.
Chuck Donovan, a senior research fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation, predicted that GOP candidates would face mounting pressure from left and right to be specific about the gay marriage issue, and not just fall back on endorsement of a federal constitutional ban that has no chance of passage any time soon, if ever.
On the other hand, Donovan said he understood why GOP candidates might soft-pedal their opposition to same-sex unions.
"Most of them sense they're not going to get the warmest media treatment if they come out and take a stance on the marriage issue," he said.
Jan van Lohuizen, who has done polling for George W. Bush and other Republicans, said most of the GOP contenders are faced with a common dilemma -- if they trumpet their opposition to same-sex marriage to win conservative votes in GOP primaries, do they risk losing moderate votes in a general election?
His advice to GOP candidates on the marriage debate: "I would simply ignore it. The fiscal issues are so much more decisive than the social issues. Why go out on a limb with this one?"
The tea party movement, though its ranks include many social conservatives, has generally not sought to make same-sex marriage a dominant issue at this stage of the 2012 campaign.
"Because all the economic issues are going to explode, nobody except extreme hard-core advocates on each side will be talking it," said Judson Phillips, founder of the Tea Party Nation.
GOP candidates might be better off under this scenario, according to Phillips, who depicted same-sex marriage as "a hugely awkward issue for them."
Sal Russo, a strategist for the Tea Party Express, said the movement's followers are primarily concerned about the size and cost of government and have diverse views about social issues.
"We have libertarians who support same-sex marriage, and Christian activists who adamantly oppose it," he said.