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A slo-mo evolution for Obama on gay marriage

Thursday - 5/10/2012, 11:55am  ET

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama's evolution on gay marriage unfolded at a Darwinian pace, like that of the giant tortoise. For more than a year _ eons in politics _ he danced up to the edge of endorsing it, always stopping short, still "evolving."

Until very recently, much of the betting was on Obama taking a pass on the touchy issue until after the election. Why pick that fight now?

On Wednesday, he picked it. Obama gave a heads-up to a spiritual adviser, among others, and staked his position in a TV interview as the first president to declare himself in favor of same-sex marriage rights.

Obama doesn't have the power to make same-sex marriage legal. But by taking a stand, he closed the loop with gay-rights activists who are important financiers and supporters of his re-election campaign while putting himself on a potentially perilous path with voters in states such as North Carolina. That state backed him in 2008 but voted solidly Tuesday to ban gay marriage in the state constitution. And it hosts the Democratic National Convention in September.

Obama said he rushed into announcing his new position after Vice President Joe Biden got "a little bit over his skis" in publicly endorsing gay marriage days earlier, opening an apparent disconnect in the White House over the issue.

But his do-over came just in time to make a big splash at a pair of fund-raisers: a Hollywood gala at actor George Clooney's home Thursday night and a New York event on Monday drawing some of Obama's biggest gay and lesbian donors from the area. The Clooney dinner alone is expected to raise almost $15 million, a record.

As told by aides, Obama concluded earlier this year that gay couples should have the legal right to marry and planned to say so before the convention. Speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal White House conversations, they said the White House felt compelled to accelerate its plans after Biden declared his support for gay marriage on a Sunday morning talk show and said he was "absolutely comfortable" with same-sex couples being legally wed.

Then on Monday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a longtime friend and basketball buddy of the president, stirred the pot further. Asked on a morning show whether he believed same-sex couples should legally be allowed to marry, Duncan said simply, "Yes, I do."

To outsiders, an element of orchestration seemed apparent _ a softening of the ground before Obama stepped forward. After all, Biden has spoken out of turn before _ as when he asserted during the 2009 swine flu outbreak that he would keep his family off airplanes and subways altogether _ and the White House has some practice cleaning up after such remarks.

But aides said Biden's comment was impromptu. He taped his appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Friday, and top officials said they and the president were quickly made aware that the vice president went further than Obama ever had on the issue. While officials said Obama was not angry with Biden, he decided that his vice president's remarks made it difficult to keep his own views private for much longer.

After Biden's interview was broadcast Sunday morning, gay-rights advocates swiftly proclaimed him to be the highest-ranking U.S. official to endorse gay marriage publicly and pressed the president anew to do the same.

The White House and Obama campaign struggled to manage the fallout. Biden's office released a statement insisting the vice president had not broken ranks with Obama. David Axelrod, a senior campaign adviser, chimed in on Twitter, saying Biden and Obama shared the view that all married couples should have the same legal rights.

White House press secretary Jay Carney's daily briefing Monday afternoon was dominated by questions about the president's position on gay marriage and whether he had become increasingly isolated on the issue within his own administration. "He, as you know, said that his views on this were evolving, and I don't have an update for you on that," an exasperated Carney said.

By Tuesday morning, Obama and his aides concluded that they couldn't contain the matter any longer. They started putting a plan in motion for Obama to embrace gay marriage in a television interview, which is how they had always planned for him to break the news. North Carolina's vote for the ban that night added urgency, for Democrats outside the White House if not inside.

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