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Most Republicans Who Signed Support For Same-Sex Marriage Aren't In Office

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Next month, the Supreme Court will take up a highly anticipated challenge to California's Prop 8, the ban on gay marriage. Today, a group of prominent Republicans weighed in with a legal brief opposing the ban. That puts them at odds with their party's position. But as NPR's Don Gonyea reports, it puts them in line with public opinion.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: The long-held official GOP position on gay marriage remains in place. It was prominently on display at last summer's Republican National Convention. There was the party's runner-up, presidential candidate Rick Santorum.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

GONYEA: And the nominee himself, Mitt Romney.

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GONYEA: Of course there have also been high-profile same-sex marriage supporters in the party, none more prominent than former Vice President Dick Cheney, whose daughter is gay.

RICHARD CHENEY: I think people ought to be free to enter into any kind of union they wish.

GONYEA: National polls show that a slim majority of Americans do support gay marriage, and that's a huge shift from two elections ago. Michael Dimock is with Pew Research.

MICHAEL DIMOCK: In 2004, our polling had 2-to-1 opposition to gay marriage nationwide, and what that meant is it was a unifying issue for Republicans and a wedge issue among Democrats.

GONYEA: But now it's Democrats who are overwhelmingly unified in favor of gay marriage while Republicans are split. A clear majority in the GOP is still opposed, but a growing minority is in favor, especially younger GOP voters, which brings us to today's development.

More than 80 prominent Republicans have signed a legal brief to be filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the effort to overturn California Proposition 8. It's great news for Jimmy LaSalvia, who heads an organization for gay conservatives called GOProud.

JIMMY LASALVIA: I think that this is just one more example about how everybody, including conservatives, are thinking about the issue of same-sex marriage differently.

GONYEA: The signatures on the legal brief include a few current officeholders, but many more former officials and candidates such as Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay who opposed gay marriage as a candidate for governor of California in 2010. There's also former Utah governor and GOP presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman and Christie Todd Whitman, a former governor and EPA administrator. Dick Cheney has not signed it.

Only two of the names on the list so far are sitting GOP officeholders, both members of Congress: Richard Hanna of New York and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida. GOP strategist John Feehery says it's a measure of how tricky the issue remains for Republican elected officials. The party once saw this as an issue to motivate voters to turn out and vote for Republicans. Now Feehery says it's better to change the subject.

JOHN FEEHERY: As they go forward, they're going to want to look at the - focusing on fiscal and economic issues and stay away from this one.

GONYEA: The legal brief itself may not affect the case before the court or change many minds in the party, but it is a sign of how many minds within the party have already changed. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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