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Obama's gay marriage gamble

As a political issue, same-sex marriage is like playing 3-D chess: Opponents of the idea need to move quickly because the game board is tilting slowly but steadily in favor of the other side.

It is a sign of how far the debate has moved, for example, that conservatives are divided over whether President Obama's professed unequivocal support hurts him or helps him.

Some conservatives like columnist-blogger Michelle Malkin saw it as part of his re-election strategy. "It's not so much that this is a politically or electorally driven decision by the president, as it is a campaign finance decision," said Malkin on "Fox & Friends." "There are wealthy progressive donors that have not been happy with the president hedging around this issue."

Indeed, fundraisers say the donations began pouring in within minutes of the news a week ago that, after months of "evolving on the issue," Obama affirmed unequivocally his support for the right of same-sex couples to get hitched.

Just think: Back in 2004, when the gay marriage issue on ballots in Ohio and other battleground states brought out large numbers of religious conservatives and others who favored President George W. Bush, I would not have expected the issue to turn this quickly into a plus for Democrats.

Yet, as we saw in the rise of the "don't ask, don't tell" ban on gays in the military in the early 1990s and its repeal under Obama, changes in public opinion have come swiftly. This is particularly true of younger generations, who have not had as much time as their elders for negative stereotypes to settle into their psyches.

Yet Tony Perkins of the socially conservative Family Research Council took the more conventional view in an NPR interview that the president has "handed Mitt Romney the key to social conservative support."

He noted that North Carolina voted by a 20-percentage-point margin for an amendment to ban gay marriage and civil unions the day before Obama announced that his views had "evolved" into full support for same-sex marriage. Within that landslide, Perkins pointed out, were some black-majority precincts that supported Obama in 2008 but voted for the anti-gay marriage amendment by "60 percent or more."

Indeed, that's a peril for Obama in his support base. Among his core supporters, African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans are notable among the most churchgoing and most hostile to the idea of gay marriage.

Yet, comparing recent polls with earlier surveys reveals attitudes in these two important communities, as with mainstream non-Hispanic whites, are shifting fast, especially among the young.

Patterns of generational attitudes suggest that, just as among whites, support will almost certainly continue to grow in the years ahead.

The question for Obama is whether attitudes have changed or will change enough by November to outweigh whatever losses his position may cost his political capital.

One black pastor who illustrates the hold-your-nose view was the Rev. Jamal Bryant of Baltimore's Empowerment Temple. He said on Tom Joyner's radio show that he "absolutely, vehemently" disagreed with the president's decision. Yet, he expects to vote for Obama again because, "I think, given the option I've got, which is Mitt Romney, I've got no choice."

Indeed, Obama may have helped presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney to firm up his base with this issue. But with the GOP's lack of effective outreach to black and Hispanic voters, Romney and his fellow Republicans are returning the favor.