AP Political Writer
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - President Barack Obama's newly announced support for same-sex marriages adds an emotional new element with an uncertain effect into his re-election bid in Virginia, a battleground state he won in 2008 but where voters have consistently opposed it.
Virginia Democratic and Republican leaders on both sides and political analysts said Wednesday it's unclear whether Obama or his presumptive Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, gains the most in an election dominated by the economy.
Obama, who once opposed gay marriage, became the first sitting president to announce his support for it. He said in an ABC News interview Wednesday that he was taking a personal position on the issue and felt public policy on marriage is best decided by individual states.
Obama's declaration drew another bright line between himself and Romney, who quickly disagreed with the president, saying he felt "marriage is between a man and a woman."
Virginia voters ratified that concept into their state's constitution in 2006. But the vote _ 57 percent in support of the amendment and 43 percent opposed _ was hardly the landslide expected in a state that was home to the Rev. Jerry Falwell's evangelical empire and Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson.
"I think the effect will be neutral," said Virginia Democratic Party chairman Brian J. Moran. "Those who vote on this issue were never going to vote for President Obama anyway."
State GOP chairman Pat Mullins found it ironic that Obama had spoken out on a divisive social issue after Democrats spent the winter pounding Republicans for a wave of conservative social legislation that was muscled through a GOP-ruled General Assembly, including a new law that will require women to undergo and pay for ultrasound exams before having abortions.
George Mason University political science professor Mark Rozell said called the likely outcome "a mixed bag."
Obama's support for gay marriage may help evangelical conservatives, who find same-sex unions abhorrent, overcome their reluctance toward Romney, Rozell said. Yet it could also restore some of the enthusiasm lost since 2008 among Obama's activist core of supporters and play well among independent voters.
"But I don't think it moves the vast majority of the electorate in this campaign," Rozell said. "If you look at polling data on what are the most important issues in this election cycle, this one would rank pretty low."
Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation, said Obama sought to divert attention from a tepid economy by "pandering to a dwindling base" Her organization was a major organizer and backer of the 2006 constitutional amendment against gay marriage in Virginia.
"It's bewildering that anyone can say with a straight face that counterfeit marriage has the momentum after the citizens of 31 states, including California, have voted to protect the definition of marriage," she said.
For years, however, polls have shown a widening generational divide over the issue with young voters far more accepting of same-sex unions. Obama noted it in his interview, saying "it wouldn't dawn" on his two young daughters that some of their friends' parents would be treated differently than others because of their sexual orientation.
Obama spoke after events of recent days forced his hand. Vice president Joe Biden said on a Sunday morning talk show that he supported gay marriage. North Carolina voters on Tuesday amended their state constitution to define marriage exclusively as monogamous, heterosexual unions.
In Richmond, 50-year-old Jeff Wells, who owns a bed-and-breakfast with his partner Mac Pence, said he was delighted by Obama's announcement.
"In my heart, I felt the president supported marriage equality, but I thought his decision not to speak publicly about it was politically motivated. I was pleasantly surprised that he had the courage to do that," said Wells.
He and Pence were married in 2009 in Boston, but kept their home in Virginia, where their union lacks legal recognition.
"When I was 25 years old, I never conceived that ... I would one day be married to a man I loved," Wells said. "It's gratifying to know that we are entering the 21st century on the right side of history."
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