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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

At the Democratic Convention, an Emphasis on Social Issues


CHARLOTTE, N.C. - On Monday night, Michelle Obama told the nation that her husband wants everyone to succeed no matter “who we love.”

If that was not clear enough, she returned to the point later in her address. “If proud Americans can be who they are and boldly stand at the altar with who they love,” she said, “then surely, surely we can give everyone in this country a fair chance at that great American dream.”

She was not the only one. At times it seemed as if almost every speaker on the first night of the Democratic National Convention was touting same-sex marriage.

“When it comes to letting people marry whomever they love, Mitt Romney says no,” Mayor Julián Castro of San A ntonio said of the Republican nominee.

“Today in Massachusetts, you can also marry whomever you love,” said that state's governor, Deval Patrick.

Kal Penn, the actor and former White House aide, praised Mr. Obama for being “cool with all of us getting gay-married.”

The two back-to-back conventions are highlighting an interesting role reversal between the political parties. The Republicans, who in the past eagerly waged a culture war, tried to emphasize economic issues, while the Democrats, stuck with a bad economy, were no longer running away from social issues that once petrified their strategists.

Same-sex marriage was the most obvious example of that, although not the only one. Democrats were eager to talk about abortion rights and contraception, issues they hope will rev up their liberal base and paint Mr. Romney's Republican Party as out of the mainstream. A speaker scheduled for Wednesday night is Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown Law graduat e whose support for Mr. Obama's mandate for insurance coverage of contraceptives has made her a party favorite.

But if abortion has been a critical issue for Democrats for years, same-sex marriage has moved to the forefront in a striking way. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed legislation defining marriage as the union of a man and woman, and just eight years ago, President George W. Bush supported a Constitutional amendment codifying that, while nearly a dozen states held referendums to ban same-sex nuptials.

Mr. Obama had formally opposed same-sex marriage until switching positions this year. Now that he has declared his support for the practice, the party has put same-sex marriage in its platform for the first time.

“The center of gravity on gay marriage has moved at an amazingly quick pace toward support for marriage equality, and the majority of voters are comfortable with the position Obama has taken on it,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic poll ster. “The issue is a defining one for younger voters, who see it as a litmus test of whether someone is in sync with modern times and their generation.”

Even so, Democrats are trying to couch their support with careful language. With the exception of Mr. Penn, most did not use the word “gay” but instead framed it as allowing everyone to marry “who they love.”

Some strategists said the embrace of same-sex marriage carried risks, particularly with older voters who are not as comfortable with it. While polls show a shift in public attitudes, particularly among the young, advocates of same-sex marriage have lost every statewide referendum that has gone on the ballot.

Just days before Mr. Obama announced his change of position, voters here in North Carolina became the 31st state to approve an amendment to the State Constitution banning same-sex marriage. Others have banned it via state legislature.

Other states will vote this fall. Maryland, w here state lawmakers and Gov. Martin O'Malley approved same-sex marriage this year, will vote in November on whether to ratify the move, and some advocates believe that may be the first state where the public supports the practice.

Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary under Mr. Bush, said Democrats were taking a gamble in focusing on divisive social issues, just as Republicans have in the past, if from the opposite ideological pole.

“It tells you how far the Democratic Party has changed,” he said. “Issues where only the most liberal were comfortable talking about - now the entire party reverberates to that beat.”

He added: “Republicans define themselves for many swing voters as too interested and too focused on divisive social issues. The open question is, are Democrats at risk of alienating independent voters because of their overemphasis on social issues.”