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A tightrope on gay marriage

From NBC/NJ's Matthew E. Berger

Where do the campaigns stand on the California initiative to ban gay marriage? It can be hard to figure out.
 
The McCain campaign quietly released their support for the initiative -- which declares marriage as a union between a man and a woman -- last Thursday. (McCain voted against the federal constitutional same-sex marriage ban.)

VIDEO: Across California, gay couples rushed to get marriage licenses and exchange vows for the first time, triggering celebrations, protests and a new cottage industry. NBC's Chris Jansing reports.

There was no press release, and the statement appears nowhere on the campaign Web site. Instead, the McCain camp gave a statement to the organization behind the California initiative.
 
"We sought the endorsement, and they gave it to us," said Jeff Flint, the campaign manager for the Protect Marriage Initiative. "We asked if we can put it out, and they said, 'yes.'"

The two-sentence statement reads: "I support the efforts of the people of California to recognize marriage as a unique institution between a man and a woman, just as we did in my home state of Arizona. I do not believe judges should be making these decisions."
 
The campaign appears to be saying one thing to conservative groups, and another to the mainstream media. When the California Supreme Court ruled on gay marriage in California on May 15, campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds made a similar statement, but didn't send it to their full press list. It's not on their Web site, either.
 
On June 3, when the California initiative qualified for the November ballot, the campaign released a less declarative statement to the national press, in John McCain's name, in which he said, "I welcome the news that the people of California will have the opportunity to decide on the question of the definition of marriage, rather than having that decision made by judicial fiat as the California Supreme Court asserted in their recent ruling." It doesn't say whether he supports it.
 
Backing the California initiative is a controversial move for McCain. The state's Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, opposes the measure, and while a recent Los Angeles Times poll showed 54 percent of registered voters backed the amendment, the paper's polling director, Susan Pinkus, said ballot measures usually lose support during a campaign and the current numbers "may not bode well for the measure."
 
His stated support for the measure helps McCain with social conservatives, who pressed him last week to speak more often on social issues like gay marriage and abortion. But it can hurt his standing with moderates and independent voters.
 
Obama, who also opposed the federal ban on gay marriage, took a similar tact in the opposite direction of McCain this weekend. The Illinois senator announced through the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club that he opposed the California amendment. In a letter read in San Francisco Sunday, Obama said he he opposes "divisive and discriminatory efforts to amend the California Constitution, and similar efforts to amend the U.S. Constitution or those of other states."
 
"Sen. Obama supports civil unions, and he has consistently opposed federal and state constitutional marriage amendments because as we have seen in some states, enshrining a definition of marrigae into the constitution can allow some states to roll back the civil rights and benefits that are provided in domestic partnerships and civil unions," Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt said.

He added that Obama has made that case in front of Christian audiences as well as gay rights groups. LaBolt said the campaign has been telling reporters about their opposition to the state initiative since the Supreme Court decision, although it is not on its Web site either.
 

But Obama told the Human Rights Campaign in a questionnaire earlier this year that he opposed the idea of civil marriage for gay couples, while supporting civil unions that include the same legal rights. He also said he would oppose efforts to block states from voting on this issue.
 
"However, I do not support gay marriage," he said in the questionnaire. "Marriage has religious and social connotations, and I consider marriage to be between a man and a woman. If I was President, however, I would oppose any effort to stifle a state's ability to decide this question on its own."
 
The McCain camp has accused of Obama of changing positions on this issue.
 
"He's always said he's opposed to gay marriage and that it should be left up to the states," McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said. "I'm not sure how opposing this initiative would be opposing gay marriage. It doesn't really track."
 
Flint said McCain's endorsement of the California amendment was important because it helps show the initiative is not mean-spirited, which he said can boost support.
 
McCain's Web site has three paragraphs on protecting marriage in its "Human Dignity and Life" section of the issues tab. "John McCain believes the institution of marriage is a union between one man and one woman," it reads, adding that the "Founding Fathers reserved for the States the authority and responsibility to protect and strengthen the vital institutions of our civil society."
 
Patrick Sammon, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay Republican group, said he had been talking to campaign officials since Friday to get clarification on their position.
 
"We obviously disagree with Sen. McCain and will work to convince him this amendment is wrong for California and wrong for America," Sammon said.
 
Flint said his campaign has not decided whether to feature McCain's statement in print or television advertising in California.
 
"We've put it out and we've got authorization to use the statement if and when it's helpful to our campaign," he said.

NBCNews/National Journal's Carrie Dann contributed to this report.