GOP Encouraged To Shift Immigration, Gay Marriage Positions

National attitudes and electoral demographics are changing so fast on issues like gay marriage and immigration that the GOP is struggling to keep up without alienating its social conservative base.

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With his journey, the president temporarily left behind a changing American political scene. The Republican Party is struggling with that change. Public opinion on immigration and gay marriage is changing quickly. That forces Republicans to try a balancing act, as NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: As sea changes go, what's happening inside the Republican Party on immigration is as sudden as a tsunami. This week, the shift was on display from one end of the party spectrum to the other. The party chairman, Reince Priebus, issued a report calling on Republicans to embrace comprehensive immigration reform. Then, the next day, the newly anointed favorite of the Tea Party grassroots, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, followed suit in a speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

SENATOR RAND PAUL: Republicans need to become parents of a new future with Latino voters or we will need to resign ourselves to being a permanent minority status.

LIASSON: Paul said the party needed to start by acknowledging they weren't going to deport 12 million illegal immigrants.

PAUL: This is where prudence, compassion and thrift all point towards the same goal: bringing these workers out of the shadows and into becoming and being tax-paying members of society.

LIASSON: Lots of Republicans still consider a path to citizenship or even legal status to be amnesty, and Paul steered clear of that debate. But he also waded into the fracas over gay marriage, another divisive social issue where the GOP base finds itself at odds with changing popular opinion. Last week, Paul suggested taking the word marriage out of the tax code entirely so it doesn't exclude same-sex couples. And this week the Priebus report counseled the GOP to change its tone on gay rights. Here's Republican pollster Whit Ayres.

WHIT AYRES: I don't know that the party has to embrace gay marriage and I don't think it will. But I think it's very important that the Republican Party not be perceived as anti-gay, and we're making real progress in that direction.

LIASSON: Sometimes that brand new balancing act can be a little awkward. Here's party chairman Priebus.

REINCE PRIEBUS: I know what our principles are and I know our party believes that marriage is between one man and one woman. But I also know that we have a party that's going to be inclusive.

LIASSON: Some other potential Republican presidential candidates, like Marco Rubio, are beating a tactical retreat in the gay marriage war. Instead of advocating a constitutional ban, Rubio now merely says it should be a state issue.

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: Just because I believe a state should have a right to define marriage in a traditional way does not make me a bigot.

LIASSON: Reconciling such rapidly changing national attitudes with a party still defined by its socially conservative base will be hard, says grassroots conservative Erick Erickson, who suggests Republicans approach the subject from a different angle.

ERICK ERICKSON: I think you would have a huge problem with the base, unless they started the conversation from the aspect of protecting religious objectors with the ever-growing stories of churches risking their tax exempt status, bakers being sued because they don't want to bake wedding cakes for gay marriage. I think Republicans are going to have to raise that issue first and get those protections before they dare shift on gay marriage.

LIASSON: That may be, but making the shift on this issue has become unavoidable, says Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush.

MICHAEL GERSON: Whatever their views are on the topic, Republicans are going to have to accommodate the reality that gay marriage is not going away in large parts of the country. Republicans are going to have to shape a message that builds alliances with people who both oppose gay marriage and support gay marriage to support stronger families.

LIASSON: That will be a difficult adjustment for the Republican Party. But on other issues, like abortion and guns, the GOP has not had to move out of its comfort zone. On gun control, Republicans have been able to maintain their staunch opposition to most new gun regulations. Whit Ayres.

AYRES: Guns are very different from either immigration or gay issues. Major overhaul of our gun laws is going nowhere. Some minor changes in background checks are about the most that's likely to happen.

LIASSON: But that's the exception, says Ayres, for a party facing years of internal struggle.

AYRES: There will be wide open debate on a great many of these issues, and that debate will not be settled until we select a nominee for president in 2016.

LIASSON: Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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