WASHINGTON - Mitt Romney’s campaign is weighing how forcefully to use his opposition to gay marriage - in contrast to President Obama’s endorsement of it this week - as a way to energize a social conservative GOP base that has long distrusted him.
Ed Gillespie, a senior adviser to Romney, said on Thursday that the campaign would make the issue a clear “bright-line difference in this campaign.’’ He said Romney would campaign on the issue and also actively push for a federal constitutional ban on gay marriage.
“It’s an important issue for people and it engenders strong feelings on both sides,’’ Gillespie said on MSNBC. “I think it’s important to be respectful in how we talk about our differences, but the fact is that’s a significant difference in November.’’
He also said Obama may have made a mistake, given opposition to gay marriage at the ballot box in crucial states like North Carolina.
But just how much of an issue gay marriage will be was not clear. Other Romney advisers said they will be careful not to let gay marriage overshadow what they view as their trump issue, using the ailing economy to show that Romney could do better.
“There are some people that would say you should talk about this every day at every stop,’’ said one Romney adviser who asked not to be identified. “Others say you shouldn’t talk about it at all. My prediction is that Mitt Romney will strike an appropriate balance - talk about it and state his position, but talk about other things too.’’
The former Massachusetts governor is planning to give the commencement address on Saturday at the conservative Liberty University. Republicans and social conservative leaders are hoping Romney will use the occasion to firmly signal that he, while not normally a culture warrior, is willing to pick this fight.
The speech sets up the first major test for how and whether Romney can improvise in the general election, taking on an issue that rose in prominence in a way that was unforeseen just days ago. The speech could also allow Romney to rally a campus of evangelical Christians, a group that has been wary of his Mormon faith.
“Barack Obama gave Romney a huge, unintended gift,’’ said Florida-based Republican consultant Ana Navarro. “I think Romney went from possibly getting protested at Liberty University to receiving a long, standing ovation. He was going there as a foreigner. He’s now their guy.’’
Romney advisers, who have seen early drafts of the speech he will deliver on Saturday, said he was unlikely to dwell on the gay marriage debate but could bring it up. He instead will deliver a new speech focused more on the personal - mindful that he’s addressing a graduating class - than the policy or political.
The issue so far has energized several prominent conservatives, who criticize Obama for reversing course and backing gay marriage.
“It grieves me that our president would now affirm same-sex marriage, though I believe it grieves God even more,’’ evangelist Franklin Graham said in a statement. “This is a sad day for America. May God help us.’’
Still, Romney runs the risk of alienatingthe growing number of Americans who say they are comfortable with gay marriage, and he also could face challenges in mobilizing young voters, who are far more willing to support it.
“Is the gay marriage issue a trap for Republicans or Mitt Romney?’’ conservative commentator Laura Ingraham asked on Twitter.
Obama’s campaign on Thursday sent out a fund-raising appeal to his supporters labeled “Marriage.’’ He also traveled to the West Coast for a series of fund-raisers that culminated with a dinner at the home of actor George Clooney, and there are signs that he will try to continue to elevate the issue.
“Governor Romney is for an amendment to the US Constitution that would enshrine discrimination into our founding legal document,’’ White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Air Force One. “The president thinks that’s wrong.’’
William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told reporters Thursday that Romney needs to maintain a certain distance from the more fervent social conservatives to remain attractive to independent voters, who are far more concerned with the economy.
Romney has consistently been opposed to gay marriage and, when he was running for governor in 2002, he also made clear that he opposed civil unions.
“Call me old fashioned, but I don’t support gay marriage nor do I support civil union,’’ he said during an October 2002 gubernatorial debate. “I do not favor marriage between gays. I think marriage should be preserved for a husband and a wife of different genders.’’
After the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts ruled in 2003 that barring gay marriage was unconstitutional, Romney pursued several legislative ways to stop the state from becoming the first to legalize it.
But early in his political career, Romney spoke differently about gay rights. During his unsuccessful US Senate campaign against Edward M. Kennedy in 1994, for example, Romney said he would fight harder for equal rights of gays and lesbians than his more liberal opponent.
“I think the gay community needs more support from the Republican Party and I would be a voice in the Republican Party to foster antidiscrimination efforts,’’ Romney told Bay Windows, New England’s largest publication for the gay and lesbian community.
Even during this campaign he has reminded voters that he appointed gay members as judges and in his Cabinet.
He has reaffirmed in recent days that he would support certain rights for gay couples, such as visitation rights at hospitals, but only if those rights are granted on a state-by-state basis. His language has so far been mild, noting twice in two days that it is a “tender’’ issue.
Romney said on Thursday he didn’t see gay rights as similar to the civil rights movement.
“I don’t see it in that light,’’ he said in an interview on Fox News. “I believe that marriage has been defined the same way for literally thousands of years by virtually every civilization in history and that marriage is by its definition a relationship between a man and woman.’’
Romney said he still thought the economy would be the driving issue in the election, and he suggested that Obama’s campaign was using the issue as a distraction.
“I think you will find throughout this campaign season that the president’s team will be doing everything in their power to try and hold up various shiny objects,’’ he said.Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.