WASHINGTON, United States of America – US President Barack Obama’s sudden public endorsement of same-sex marriage caught Republicans off guard, but the party seeking to win back the White House must now decide whether to make gay rights a key campaign issue.
Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee who is already locked in a fierce campaign battle with Obama ahead of the November 6 election, quickly and expectedly reiterated his opposition to gay marriage.
He doubled down on Thursday, telling Fox News that “my preference is to have a national standard for marriage and that marriage be defined as being (between) a man and a woman.”
States, he said, should be allowed “to determine what rights would be provided for people of the same gender that wanted to have a relationship.”
But while Romney and House Speaker John Boehner both said the campaign should be about major issues like the economy and jobs, some party luminaries say the campaign has a new wedge issue, and blasted out emails to supporters calling on Republicans for donations to help fight for traditional marriage.
“This is going to be a defining issue this election,” Republican Mike Huckabee, a 2008 presidential candidate who holds considerable sway with religious conservatives, said in an email pitch for donations.
“Obama… and the Democrats have been a complete failure on economic issues so now they are going to focus on issues that will rile up their base,” he added. “Well, Mr President, it’s going to rile up our folks also.”
Romney’s onetime rival Rick Santorum, who bowed out of the presidential race last month and now backs Romney, called Obama’s endorsement “a tragic day for America” and for supporters of conservative values.
“While we were always suspicious of his sincerity on this issue, his public proclamation that he now opposes preserving marriage as one man and one woman — the very building block of our society — means the charade is now over and our fight begins in earnest.”
Romney found himself on the back foot on gay rights Thursday, apologizing over high school pranks on potentially gay classmates which he admitted “may have gone too far.”
“Back in high school, you know, I did some dumb things and if anybody was hurt by that or offended, why, obviously I apologize,” Romney told Fox News Radio host Brian Kilmeade hours after The Washington Post published an explosive profile of Romney during his teen years.
According to the Post, which interviewed and quoted several classmates at the elite Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Romney led a group of friends who held down a fellow student they presumed was gay while Romney cut the boy’s hair.
The article portrayed Romney as an insensitive bully, and he readily admitted he engaged in some inappropriate behavior.
Romney told Fox television that he had no idea about classmates’ sexual orientation back in the 1960s, adding, “I don’t recall the incident but I am seeing the reports and I will not argue with that.”
The Republican National Committee was portraying Obama’s announcement as fraught with risk, as he could alienate some African-American religious groups and Hispanics who have broadly supported Obama but who are opposed to gay marriage.
“I think this is going to open an avenue for a lot of people who haven’t made up their minds yet in the Hispanic community,” said Jose Fuentes, co-chair of Romney’s Latino Steering Committee.
“If one thing is clear, it’s that the Hispanic community is against gay marriage.”
Several Republican senators said they were not sure whether gay marriage should play a role in the campaign.
“It might make a difference, but only from the standpoint of how people feel personally about the president as opposed to whether or not there’s going to be any public policy connected with it,” Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa told AFP.
Obama is no doubt enjoying a bump in support after his endorsement, and he will revel in the approval Thursday night when he appears at a star-studded fundraising gala hosted by Hollywood heartthrob George Clooney in Los Angeles that is expected to rake in up to US$15 million for the campaign. – Agence France-Presse