By JOSH LEDERMAN
WASHINGTON (AP) -- For years, American opinion on same-sex marriage has been shifting. Now lawmakers are in a mad dash to catch up.
In less than two weeks, seven senators -- all from moderate or Republican-leaning states -- announced their support, dropping one by one like dominos. Taken together, their proclamations reflected a profound change in the American political calculus: For the first time, elected officials from traditionally conservative states are starting to feel it's safer to back same-sex marriage than risk being the last to join the cause.
"As far as I can tell, political leaders are falling all over themselves to endorse your side of the case," Chief Justice John Roberts told lawyers urging the Supreme Court on Wednesday to strike down a law barring legally married gay couples from receiving federal benefits or recognition.
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It was the second of two landmark gay marriage cases the justices heard this week, the high court's first major examination of gay rights in a decade. But the focus on the court cases -- replete with colorful, camera-ready protests outside the court building -- obscured the sudden emergence of a critical mass across the street in the Capitol as one by one, senators took to Facebook or quietly issued a statement to say that they, too, now support same-sex marriage.
For some Democrats, like Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill and Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the reversal would have been almost unfathomable just a few months ago as they fought for re-election. The potential risks were even greater for other Democrats like North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan and Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, already top GOP targets when they face voters next year in states that President Barack Obama lost in November. After all, it was less than a year ago that voters in Hagan's state approved a ban on same-sex marriage.
Those four Democrats and two others -- Mark Warner of Virginia and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia -- were swept up in a shifting tide that began to take shape last year, when Obama, in the heat of his re-election campaign, became the first sitting president to endorse gay marriage. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a potential contender in the next presidential election, followed suit in mid-March. As support among party leaders builds, rank-and-file Democrats appear wary of being perceived as hold-outs in what both parties are increasingly describing as a civil-rights issue.
"They're reflecting what they're seeing in the polls -- except the most extreme of the Republican base," former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican who supports gay marriage, said in an interview. "From a purely political perspective, if you want to be a leader of the future, you look at the next generation. They are overwhelmingly in favor of this."
Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican Party, cautioned in a USA Today interview that the GOP should not "act like Old Testament heretics."
Among Republicans, whose party platform opposes gay marriage, the shift in position has mostly been limited to former lawmakers and prominent strategists. Still, a distinct change in tone was palpable this month when Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican whom presidential candidate Mitt Romney vetted last year as a potential running mate, declared his support, citing a personal conversion stemming from his son coming out to him as gay.
Rather than blast Portman for flouting party dogma or failing an ideological litmus test, Republican leaders shrugged, indicating that even if Republicans, as a party, aren't prepared back same-sex marriage, they won't hold it against those in their ranks who do.
In the Republican-controlled House, where most members come from lopsided districts heavily skewed to one party or the other, GOP leaders are not wavering publicly from their staunch opposition. In fact, when the Obama administration stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court, it was House Republicans who took up the mantle. Democrats said Thursday that Republicans have spent as much as $3 million in taxpayer funds to defend the law, now before the Supreme Court.
"It's like immigration. The party realizes they are on the losing side of some of these issues," said former Rep. Jim Kolbe, an Arizona Republican. Kolbe came out as gay in 1996 while in office and will mark another milestone in May when he and his longtime partner get married in Washington.
"They want to make the shift, but you have got to do it in a politic and strategic way," Kolbe said. "It's a matter of how and when you take down one flag and run up the other."
Kolbe and Whitman joined dozens of other prominent Republicans in signing a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Supreme Court to strike down the law barring federal recognition of gay marriages. But with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, still defending the law and social conservative groups vowing payback for those who abandon it, prospects are slim that Congress will move any time soon to repeal it on its own.
"It's sort of a bandwagon effect among the cultural elite," said Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council, which opposes same-sex marriage. "Some of these politicians who have changed their position, those who live in more conservative states, may pay for that shift with a defeat in their next election."
If public opinion continues to move in the direction it has been for the last 15 years, what's true for the next election may not be true just a few years down the line -- even for Republicans.
When Gallup first asked in polls about gay marriages, in 1996, just 27 percent felt they should be valid. That figure climbed to 44 percent two years ago, and reached a majority by last November, when 53 percent said same-sex marriages should be recognized. Among independents, a key barometer for politicians, support has jumped 23 points to 55 percent, including a six-point gain since 2010.
Even among Republicans, support has grown by 14 percentage points since 1996, although there's been no significant movement among Republicans since 2010, when 28 percent backed legal marriage.
"A lot of Republicans have come to the conclusion we can't live one life in private but advocate another life in public," said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos. "We all know families who are loving parents of the same gender who are raising great kids."
AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.