CPAC 2012: Are The Republican Party's Views On Gay Marriage Shifting?

Are conservatives beginning to admit defeat on same-sex marriage?

Iowa GOP Congressman Steve King has in the past attacked same-sex marriage vehemently, ever since the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that marriage is a right for gays and lesbians in the Iowa Constitution. He's said it is "a purely socialist concept." He's said it was an "active effort to desecrate a sacrament of the church." He even said it would lead to children being "raised in warehouses."

But at the Conservative Political Action Conference over the weekend, King seemed to be singing a different tune.

"I never made the case that had to do with the social component in this," he told me in an interview, seeming to contradicting his previous statements while projecting a softer position on the issue. "I made the legal case. We had a supreme court that determined that they could find rights in the constitution that up to this point were unimagined."

King went on to say that he wanted a vote on the issue in Iowa, and that he would accept the outcome even if marriage for gays were approved. He in fact appears to have accepted marriage equality in New York, where the legislature passed a law rather than a court handing down a decision, noting that "that's a different story" from what happened in Iowa. And King even seemed to imply he'd accept a legislative vote that affirmed gay marriage in Iowa, noting other legislative actions that went against his beliefs but which he accepted.

"If it's a legitimate legislative action that is constitutional, I would be okay with it," he said.

This was a shift in emphasis, focusing more on perceived court injustice and not at all on the supposed fall of civilization that gay marriage will bring.

Michele Bachmann toed this line too when I spoke with her, attacking the Prop 8 ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals -- a common target of conservatives -- rather than gay marriage itself, as did Oklahoma GOP Senator Inhofe, who has staunchly attacked gay marriage in the past.

Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, no supporter of gay rights, acknowledged "new thinking in the country," noting that there is "open debate" in the GOP on gay marriage and that "we may have a generational divide." Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform told me had "no position" on gay marriage. Even Joe the Plumber, Samuel Wurzelbacher, running for Congress, refrained from the gay-bashing and attacks on marriage equality he's done in the past, and said that if the states want to do it he'd okay with it.

As Washington State becomes the 7th State to bring equality to marriage -- and through a legislative action rather than court decision -- there was a distinct impression at CPAC that the anti-gay activists have realized they've lost a lot of ground and may have lost the war, particularly among young people.

A panel discussion moderated by Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage and which included anti-feminist icon Phyllis Schlafly, was defensively titled, "The Phony Divide Between Fiscal & Social Conservatives: Protecting Marriage as a Case Study." The panel came off as a desperate plea by social conservatives, designed to make the point Gallagher admitted to the crowd: Many in the GOP, particularly among the libertarian-minded Tea Party activists, do not care about the gay marriage issue or many other social issues, at least not to the degree that Gallagher would like.

That certainly appears to be true after speaking with younger Tea Party activists at CPAC and even with the college students the Mitt Romney campaign brought in. Many just don't care about the issue or even support marriage equality, even as Romney made his promise to "defend' marriage in his speech at CPAC.

Tellingly, the Gallagher-moderated event featured a five-person panel (including Gallagher) in which each member was over 50; four of the five were over 60, including Schlafly, who is 87. The audience of several hundred people for the event, held in the main ballroom, was predominantly over 50.

Meanwhile, outside in the corridors, the rest of CPAC went on with many of the 20- and 30-somethings, the future of the conservative movement, who obviously didn't care enough to sit through it.