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Sullivan under fire over stance on marriage

Republican Senate candidate Michael J. Sullivan, under attack from the state Democratic Party, sent mixed messages about his stance on same-sex marriage Wednesday, highlighting how his conservative social views have clouded his entry into the race.

Speaking to reporters in the morning and to a conservative radio host in the afternoon, Sullivan, a former US attorney, insisted he would not back away from his opposition to same-sex marriage, calling himself “a traditionalist when it comes to the definition of marriage.”

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But hours later, after he was painted as an extremist at a press conference convened by Democratic Party leaders, he released a statement that appeared to soften that stance.

“I believe DOMA should be reversed and the federal government should respect those states that recognize gay marriage by providing those couples with the same level of benefits,” Sullivan said in the statement, referring to the federal Defense of Marriage Act that bars federal recognition of same-sex unions.

Sullivan is one of three Republicans, along with state Representative Daniel B. Winslow and former Navy SEAL Gabriel E. Gomez, who have qualified for the April 30 primary.

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But only he has come under assault from Democratic leaders, in an unusually early attack intended to cast him as the leader of a GOP that is out of step with the social views of most Massachusetts voters. Some political observers believe the attacks are intended to elevate Sullivan’s profile, in hopes he, as the most conservative Republican in the field, will emerge as the eventual GOP nominee.

State Republicans have a history of nominating candidates who hold moderate social views on abortion and gay rights. Democrats believe a candidate who departs from that mold will be easier to defeat in the June 25 general election.

In a press conference at state Democratic headquarters in Boston, John Walsh, the party chairman, pointed out that the other four candidates in the Senate race — Winslow, Gomez and the Democrats, US Representatives Stephen F. Lynch and Edward J. Markey — all support gay marriage.

“It’s sad and disturbing that the frontrunner in the Republican field for US Senate, Michael Sullivan, remains wedded to the past,” Walsh said.

Walsh was joined at the press conference by two openly gay legislators, state Senator Stanley C. Rosenberg, and state Representative Carl Sciortino, as well as David Wilson, one of the original plaintiffs in the landmark 2003 court case that made Massachusetts the first state to legalize gay marriage.

“I say to Michael Sullivan: We do not stand by silently while you travel the state talking about the evils of marriage equality,” Wilson said.

Gomez’s campaign piled on with its own shot at Sullivan. “Not fixing our spending problem and waffling on personal issues like marriage are two reasons why Massachusetts Republicans, independents, and conservative Democrats are tired of career politicians who put politics before principle,” said Leonardo Alcivar, a senior adviser to Gomez.

Winslow declined to criticize Sullivan, but reiterated that he supports same-sex marriage.

“I have great respect for people who have different points of view,” Winslow said. “I’m pro-equality. I have a record to back that up.”

Paul Moore, Sullivan’s campaign manager, accused Democrats of trying to cast Sullivan as “a bigot,” and said, “Mike resents that tremendously.”

Moore argued that, by backing the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, Sullivan was not abandoning his view that marriage should be only between one man and one woman. Instead, Moore said, Sullivan believes states should be allowed to decide for themselves.

“He’s saying, ‘Here’s me, but I get the bigger world I live in, and Massachusetts has had gay marriage for 10 years, and that’s where we are,’ ” he said.

He acknowledged that the issue had become a distraction for Sullivan, who is hoping to introduce himself to voters as a tested and trusted former prosecutor. “Frankly, he wants to move on to other issues,” he said.

Discussing his views earlier in the day, however, Sullivan strongly defended his opposition to gay marriage and did not mention that he wants the federal government to extend rights to states that recognize gay marriage.

“I’m a traditionalist when it comes to the definition of marriage,” he said in an interview with Michael Graham, a conservative talk radio host. “It’s not so radical in terms of a position. President Obama had a similar position during the course of his candidacy. Senator [John] Kerry has, as well.”

Sullivan did not mention that both Obama and Kerry have since announced their support for same-sex marriage.

Sullivan also contended that Massachusetts Democrats are singling him out for attacks because, as US attorney in 2005, he prosecuted Thomas M. Finneran, the powerful Democratic speaker of the House, on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in a case stemming from the state’s redistricting process. Finneran ended up pleading guilty to obstruction of justice and was disbarred.

“So part of this might be an opportunity to essentially come back after Mike Sullivan who’s taken on public corruption in my service as United States attorney,” Sullivan told reporters earlier in the day, according to the State House News Service.

Walsh dismissed the idea that Democrats are blasting Sullivan as payback for the Finneran prosecution, saying the only court case the party is focused on is the 2003 gay marriage case, Goodridge v. Department of Public Health.

Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.
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