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Perry, Conservatives and Gay Marriage: An Evolving View?

Perry, Conservatives and Gay Marriage: An Evolving View?

By Scott Conroy and Erin McPike - July 26, 2011


The Republican Party may be recalibrating its approach to gay marriage at the highest level since embracing the spirit of the tea party, with its deep mistrust of the federal government and support for states' rights.

Two of the most prominent social conservatives looking toward the 2012 presidential election -- Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann -- now have suggested deferring to the states on marriage laws. That stance meshes somewhat with former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman's view, and he is perceived to be the most socially moderate candidate in the GOP field. For a party that has in the past remained adamantly opposed to gay marriage, the coming presidential race may be the forum where that position gets a fresh look.

But it was Perry's comments Friday in Colorado that have made social conservatives uneasy, and they expect him to explain himself upon entering the presidential race.

At an event in Aspen, Perry said, "Our friends in New York six weeks ago passed a statute that said marriage can be between two people of the same sex. And you know what? That's New York, and that's their business, and that's fine with me." He continued, "That is their call. If you believe in the 10th Amendment, stay out of their business."

The 10th Amendment reads: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people." Perry has been an avid protector of the amendment in his rhetoric over the last few years, which has helped to make him something of a darling to the tea party faithful.

Although Republicans are quick to say "leave it to the states" on any number of issues, the socially conservative wing of the GOP favors a Federal Marriage Amendment that would restrict marriage to one man and one woman. Such an amendment failed to pass the House in 2006 and likely would never pass the Senate.

And so now there are the makings of an uncomfortable clash between the federalists and the social conservatives within the party about how the issue should be addressed going forward, and potential candidate Perry has found himself right in the middle of it.

Enter Oran Smith, the president of the Palmetto Family Council, a conservative, family-values organization in South Carolina, which carries weight among conservatives who vote in the early Republican primary there. Smith said he has been bombarded with emails from activists over the past 48 hours about Perry's comments -- with mixed responses.

"I've gotten everything from people saying how horrible it was to how it was the right thing to do," he said.

Smith said he believes that Perry's comments will give conservative voters pause about the Texas governor's possible candidacy, and if he doesn't explain himself, those comments may make them hesitant to support him.

"It's the way he said it," Smith said, noting that Perry said he was "fine" with New York's new law. He explained that if by "fine" he means he's happy about it, that won't sit well with evangelical voters, but if he's approaching it as a constitutional lawyer would, it may not be so bad.

At the same time, Smith said he's concerned that Perry's comments suggest he could be "slippery" on other issues. "And he may be perceived as stumbling out of the gate because of a poor choice of words," he said, indicating that such a stumble could hurt Perry in the early voting states of Iowa and South Carolina, where he would need to do well.

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Scott Conroy and Erin McPike are national political reporters for RealClearPolitics. Scott can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Erin can be reached at emcpike@realclearpolitics.com

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