WASHINGTON President Barack Obama delighted his liberal base by coming down on the side of gay marriage, but he cheered the opposition, too.
Republican activists now want to use Obamas stance on the issue public opinion is about evenly split to paint the president as a flip-flopper and to boost Mitt Romneys image in the eyes of conservatives who are still warming to him.
Yet, across the Republican Party, from leaders to activists interviewed since Obamas announcement, theres been wide agreement to use the gay-marriage issue selectively in battleground states that have banned gay marriage, for example and keep the GOPs national political focus on Obamas stewardship of the economy.
Im going to stay focused on jobs, thanks, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said repeatedly when asked about Obamas announcement on gay marriage. The president can talk about it all he wants. Im going to stay focused on what the American people want us to stay focused on.
Romney is taking a similar approach, avoiding any discussion of the issue unless hes questioned about it and focusing on the economy.
Its hard right now. Its real tough, he said Friday in Charlotte, N.C. Its because of the wrong policies. The right policies are going to put America back to work and make us the economic powerhouse weve always been.
While Republican activists acknowledge that the economy is the top concern for voters, they also see the night-and-day contrast between Obama and Romney on gay marriage as being too good not to exploit at the right times, in the right places. On questions of whether Romneys sufficiently conservative, for example. Or on the subject of consistency.
Particularly appealing, some activists said, was the White Houses notion that Obamas evolution on the issue is somehow different from flip-flopping.
This is one situation where Obama looks like the flip-flopper and Romney looks consistent, said Ralph Reed, president of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, a conservative, grass-roots advocacy group. So much for the notion that Romneys the one with no core.
Romney has taken heat from Democrats and some Republicans for changing his position on some issues, such as abortion. But the former Massachusetts governor has not done so on gay marriage. He has been consistent in saying he believes marriage is between a man and a woman.
Obama held an identical position through his 2008 election, but he said in late 2010 that his views were constantly evolving. Feeling pressured by events this week, Obama announced his new position Wednesday.
Before Obama went on record in support of same-sex marriage, Vice President Joe Biden last Sunday pronounced himself absolutely comfortable with men marrying men and women marrying women. Then on Monday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he supports gay marriage, too. The next day, voters in North Carolina approved a constitutional amendment banning gay nuptials, making it the 30th state to do so.
Besides the political and financial value of the issue, Republicans see a geographic benefit because several of the states that will decide the White House race have banned gay marriage in some form. In Ohio, Florida, Nevada and Virginia, for example, highlighting Obamas embrace of gay marriage and Romneys opposition to it could help energize conservative constituencies and win over right-leaning independents.
This isnt going to be the No. 1 issue in the campaign, but its going to mean a point or two in some of those selected states, said Richard Viguerie, a longtime conservative fundraiser. Conservatives are going to be methodical about it, working in the churches and doing groups on the ground.
Activists are racing to turn emotions into contributions for grass-roots organizing and ads and, in November, votes.
President Obama has made this an issue in the campaign, and we are confident that Mitt Romney will eagerly defend the voters of these states against the presidents attempt to impose same-sex marriage on the nation, said Brian S. Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage.
Groups focused on a broader portfolio of issues say gay marriage will be one of several social issues on their agendas but that none will be emphasized as prominently as Obamas performance on the economy.
Before Obamas announcement, Reeds Faith & Freedom Coalition was preparing a voter guide and social media campaign that included gay marriage with other social issues.
The only thing thats changed now is that we can say that Obama himself has come out and stated that hes for single-sex marriage, Reed said.
Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition of America, a conservative grass-roots group, didnt need Boehners counsel to know that Obamas support for gay marriage shouldnt play a leading role in the election. Shes seen the polls that show America roughly split over gay marriage, although with support for it growing, as well as surveys that leave no doubt voters remain jittery about the economy and their personal finances.
I dont want to see the election just based around social issues, Combs said. You cant keep Americans minds off of the economy.