PORTLAND, Maine — President Barack Obama could be caught in an election-year bind on gay marriage, wedged between the pressure of supporters who want him to back same-sex marriage and the political perils of igniting an explosive social issue in the midst of the campaign.
Interviews with gay rights advocates and people close to Obama's campaign suggest it is no longer a matter of if, but when the president publicly voices his support. But Obama backers are split over whether that will happen before the November elections.
Gay marriage is already a big issue in a handful of states that have it on their ballots in November, including Maine, where Obama was headlining two fundraisers Friday. The president also headlined fundraisers Friday in Vermont, one of six states, plus the District of Columbia, where gay marriage is legal.
But neither in Vermont nor in Maine did Obama touch on the issue during his public remarks.
Once an opponent of gay marriage, Obama declared in 2010 that his personal views on the subject were "evolving." He has gone no further in public since then.
People familiar with the Obama campaign's deliberations have tamped down expectations that the president might declare his support for gay marriage before the election. They say the campaign's internal conversations on the issue focus instead on how to energize gay and lesbian voters in spite of Obama's lack of clarity on the issue.
Public support for gay marriage is increasing in the U.S., including among the independent voters who are a key to general election success.
But regardless of whether Obama has made up his mind on the subject, it's not the topic his campaign wants to be talking about heading into an election expected to be decided largely on economic issues. As White House and campaign officials learned all too well during the controversy over birth control access earlier this year, stepping into social issues — even those with Democratic support — can quickly throw the president's message off course.
While Obama aides saw the contraception issue as an important appeal to women voters, there may be little election-year payoff for the president taking a stand on gay marriage.
Obama's record on gay rights issues, including the repeal of the military's ban on openly gay service members and an order for the Justice Department not to enforce a provision that defines marriage as between one man and one woman, has already solidified the overwhelming backing of gay rights supporters. Obama often highlights the end of the Clinton-era "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gay military service, a surefire applause line with his supporters.
"Change is the fact that for the first time in history you don't have to hide who you love in order to serve the country that you love," he told a campaign crowd at Southern Maine Community College. "We ended 'don't ask, don't tell.'"
His Republican rivals, including GOP front-runner Mitt Romney, not only oppose gay marriage, but also some other legal protections for gays and lesbians.
As for Obama, "the gay rights community is now enthusiastically in his corner in terms of the re-election, so the pressure to deliver before the election is off," said Richard Socarides, a prominent gay rights advocate.
The risk in Obama publicly backing gay marriage before the election is that it could become a rallying cry for conservatives who have thus far been reluctant to get behind Romney.
Still, many Democrats and gay rights advocates believe Obama may end up being forced to take a position on the issue before November.
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