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Empathy for Portman at CPAC, but Positions Remain Steadfast

Social conservatives at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference are weathering Ohio Sen. Rob Portman’s decision to support gay marriage, holding firm to their stance on the issue and noting that the front lines of the battle are not on Capitol Hill.

For example, former Sen. Rick Santorum offered a steadfast defense of his position when questioned about Portman’s announcement, telling a room filled with social conservatives that “just because someone changes their mind doesn’t mean anything is changed.”

“There was a saying in law school, that bad facts make bad law,” Santorum said, describing Portman and other Republicans as confronting “very difficult facts” in their lives.

Social conservative activists note that a pending Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage will have a far bigger effect than the positions of Republican lawmakers. In a worst-case scenario for the right that would parallel the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the high court could mandate gay marriage as a constitutional right.

Penny Young Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, compared the two issues politically, saying Republican politicians feared “inevitable” defeat on abortion in the 1980s only to see a resurgence of the anti-abortion rights movement, particularly among young voters, in recent years.

Santorum argued that same-sex marriage would undermine the public purpose of marriage: “a bedrock for society that is uniquely qualified to provide the best platform for raising our children.”

If marriage is just “two people loving each other … then let anybody get married,” or “three or four people,” for that matter, Santorum said to loud applause.

A former senior congressional aide who has worked on the issue said the most accurate public opinion polls, widely considered by Washington’s political class to show inexorable increases in public acceptance of same-sex marriage, show the verdict is still out on public support of the issue.

The source added that many Republican politicians are somewhat afraid to speak about the issue because of a perception that the media will jump on any rhetorical missteps.

Portman announced Friday that he had decided to support laws that would allow gays to marry after finding out two years ago that one of his sons is gay.

Although no cracks have emerged on the issue among social conservative leaders, Portman’s decision was perhaps the most significant blow same-sax marriage opponents have endured since the issue rose to the political forefront in the 2000s.

And at CPAC there was some defensiveness on the part of social conservatives. Foster Friess, a major financial backer of Santorum’s 2012 presidential campaign, was initially reluctant to speak about the issue. “I sort of have a problem with the focus on that issue because it distracts us,” he said.

Friess, whose brother-in-law is gay, is focused on the threat of violence to gays in countries where Islamic Sharia law is upheld.

On Capitol Hill, Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia quickly reaffirmed their previous positions on the issue.

Recently more than 80 Republicans signed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to support gay marriage rights when it hears back-to-back cases related to the issue this month. The move provoked anger among social conservatives leaders.

However, same-sex marriage opponents found another incident, a dust-up over remarks from Dan Cathy, the president of fast food chain Chick-fil-A, “incredibly reassuring,” Nance said.

In July 2012, same-sex marriage proponents organized boycotts of the chain because Cathy said in a radio interview that gay marriage was “inviting God’s judgment on our nation.” But then conservative politicians began organizing “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day,” in which supporters poured into restaurants nationwide, breaking sales records.

Santorum, Nance and others expressed sympathy for Portman’s situation.

“I’m really grieving for him. I think this is a difficult situation for any parent,” Nance said.

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