North Carolina strengthens gay marriage prohibition

WASHINGTON - North Carolina voters decided overwhelmingly Tuesday to strengthen their state’s gay marriage ban, a conservative show of enthusiasm six months before the nation chooses between Democratic President Obama and presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney.

Romney swept three Republican primaries, moving ever closer to sealing his nomination.

North Carolinians voted to amend their state constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman, effectively outlawing gay unions.

Also Tuesday, Democrats picked Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to challenge Republican Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in a June recall election.

The contests overshadowed Romney’s continued progress toward the GOP presidential nomination. He won the GOP presidential primaries in Indiana, North Carolina, and West Virginia, drawing close to the 1,144 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination. He was likely to win 100 or so delegates of the 288 he still needed.

The outcomes of Tuesday’s far-flung voting gave clues about the state of the electorate and highlighted the political minefields facing both Republican and Democratic candidates.

North Carolina voters moved in the opposite direction from a string of states - Democratic-leaning places such as New York and Vermont as well as conservative Iowa - where same-sex marriage is now legal. Six states and Washington, D.C., now recognize gay unions.

North Carolina law already bans gay marriage, but the amendment on the state ballot effectively slammed that door.

In the days before the North Carolina vote, two top administration officials - Vice President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan - expressed support for gay marriage. Obama supports most gay rights but has stopped short of backing gay marriage.

The Biden and Duncan comments sent the White House into damage-control mode as gay rights advocates pressed him for support.