CONCORD, N.H. — Whether they like it or not, Republican presidential candidates are joining New Hampshire's intensifying gay marriage debate.
State lawmakers plan in the coming weeks to take up a measure to repeal the law allowing same-sex couples to wed and a vote is expected at some point in January — the same month as New Hampshire holds the nation's first Republican presidential primary contest.
Already, candidates have been put on the spot over the divisive hot-button social issue when most, if not all, would rather be talking about the economy, voters' No. 1 concern.
The impending focus on gay marriage carries risk for several of White House contenders — including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former businessman Herman Cain — whose inconsistencies on the topic are well documented. The GOP candidates' increasingly vocal support for "traditional marriage" also threatens to alienate a growing number of younger Republicans and independents here who support legal recognition of same-sex couples. That note of divisiveness could bode poorly for the eventual GOP nominee come the general election.
Even so, the Republican candidates aren't shying away from the topic as they run for the nomination of a GOP dominated by conservatives and pushed further to the right by the tea party over the last few years.
"As conservatives, we believe in the sanctity of life, we believe in the sanctity of traditional marriage, and I applaud those legislators in New Hampshire who are working to defend marriage between one man and one woman realizing that children need to be raised in a loving home by a mother and a father," Perry told a New Hampshire audience recently, becoming the latest contender to address gay marriage directly.
While the issue hasn't yet become a regular talking point on the campaign trail, most Republican candidates declare support for the effort to repeal the law. And groups like the National Organization for Marriage hope to force the presidential contenders to publicly embrace the repeal.
"We will be using all the tools at our disposal to lobby the New Hampshire legislature and the broader population," said Christopher Plante, regional director for the National Organization for Marriage. "One of those tools is the echo chamber of presidential candidates continuing to show their support of marriage as defined by one man and one woman."
Plante concedes that for some candidates, "there has been an evolution on a number of fronts" on this issue.
Romney was the Massachusetts governor when his state legalized gay marriage. The Romney administration, as directed by the courts, granted nearly 200 same-sex marriage requests for gay and lesbian couples in 2005.
Campaign spokesman Ryan Williams said the former governor had little choice but to follow the state Supreme Court ruling at the time. He noted his candidate's consistent opposition to both civil unions and gay marriages, adding that Romney openly supports the New Hampshire repeal effort.
But Romney has reversed himself on whether gay marriage should be addressed at the state or federal level.
This past June, he said during a debate that he favors a federal constitutional amendment banning the practice. That's been his position at least since the beginning of his 2008 presidential bid, when he was the only major Republican candidate to support such an amendment.
But as a Massachusetts Senate candidate back in 1994, Romney told a Boston-area gay newspaper that same-sex marriage is "a state issue as you know — the authorization of marriage on a same-sex basis falls under state jurisdiction." Aides say it's unfair to scrutinize Romney's position in 1994 — when there was virtually no discussion of a federal amendment. And they suggest Romney's rivals have far more blatant inconsistencies in recent months.
Both Perry and Cain have drawn conservative criticism for recent comments related to gay marriage.
Asked in mid-October whether he supports a federal marriage amendment, Cain told the Christian Broadcasting Network that federal legislation is necessary to protect traditional marriage. That seemed to be a direct contradiction from his statement of just six days earlier, when he told "Meet the Press" host David Gregory that states should be allowed to make up their own minds.
"I wouldn't seek a constitutional ban for same sex marriage, but I am pro traditional marriage," Cain told Gregory.
In Perry's case, the Texas governor says he supports the New Hampshire repeal. But in July he said that New York's move to legalize gay marriage was "fine by me." A week later, facing social conservative criticism, he walked back the comments.
"It's fine with me that the state is using their sovereign right to decide an issue. Obviously gay marriage is not fine with me," he said then.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has another problem.
Earlier in the fall, he told an Iowa audience that gay marriage is a "temporary aberration" likely to go away because it defies convention. Gingrich, who has been married three times, has a half-sister in a same-sex marriage.
"The truth is that you're living in a world that no longer exists," Candace Gingrich-Jones wrote the former speaker in a letter posted on the Huffington Post in 2008: "In other words, stop being a hater, big bro."
Despite the presidential candidates' support for the New Hampshire repeal, younger Republicans in this state are skeptical, especially as voters are focused on the economy.
"Why is the NH House wasting time trying to repeal gay marriage? Capital ugh," Robert J. Johnson, chairman of the New Hampshire College Republicans, wrote on Twitter.
Polling suggests it may not be a winning issue.
A recent University of New Hampshire poll found that 62 percent of state residents oppose repealing the same-sex marriage law. And nationally, public opinion has gradually shifted toward supporting same-sex marriages, even among Republicans.
An August Associated Press-National Constitution Center poll found that 53 percent of Americans favor legal recognition of same-sex marriages; 32 percent of Republicans say same-sex couples should get some legal recognition from the government, compared with 71 percent among Democrats and 50 percent of independents.
Democrats hope to use the Republican contenders' positions against them in the general election next fall.
"While these radical stances might win them a few votes in their primary, it will lose them the support of the majority Americans, and ultimately put them on the losing side of history," said Ty Matsdorf, spokesman for American Bridge, an independent group aligned with Democrats.