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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.
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I'm Melissa Block. And we begin this hour with talk of gay rights. Today it was Mitt Romney's turn, one day after the president's declaration of support for gay marriage. Romney avoided the issue at a campaign appearance in Nebraska when asked about it by reporters. But in an interview with FOX News, he reiterated his belief that same-sex couples should not be allowed to marry. The president says his position on the issue evolved over time. And NPR's Tovia Smith reports that Romney's views on gay rights have changed as well.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Mitt Romney has long been accused of hedging on issues like gay rights, but yesterday, he insisted his position on same-sex marriage is clear.
MITT ROMNEY: My view is that marriage itself is a relationship between a man and a woman, and that's my own preference.
SMITH: Unlike President Obama, Romney says he hasn't changed at all.
ROMNEY: I have the same view that I've had since, well, since running for office.
SMITH: But that could depend on which office he means. Back when Romney was running for U.S. Senate in 1994, he promised to be a champion for, quote, "full equality for gays and lesbians," which many understood to include even gay marriage.
ARLENE ISAACSON: His campaign distributed at the gay pride parade pink fliers that asserted that he would be a better and a stronger advocate than Ted Kennedy.
SMITH: Lobbyist Arlene Isaacson says just a few years later - by 2003, after Romney was elected governor and a court made gay marriage legal in Massachusetts, everything changed.
ISAACSON: Once he became governor and had his eye on the White House, he totally flipped. It was across the board prohibition of any small bite of equality for the gay community.
SMITH: Romney did everything he could to keep Massachusetts from becoming the, quote, "Las Vegas of gay marriage," backing a constitutional ban at the state and federal levels. But he denies any inconsistency, saying when he said he was for equality, he meant in employment and housing, not marriage. But even there, gay rights advocates take issue. In 1994, for example, Romney favored the idea of gays serving openly in the military. But by the time he ran for president in 2008, he argued against it. Also after first backing legislation to protect gays and lesbians from job discrimination, Romney now opposes it. Longtime Democratic activist Richard Socarides.
RICHARD SOCARIDES: You can't say on the one hand that you don't want to discriminate against people, and on the other hand say that you don't think they should have any rights. You know, he calls them special rights.
SMITH: R. Clarke Cooper, head of the GOP gay organization the Log Cabin Republicans, agrees.
R. CLARKE COOPER: He's parsed his words in a way that almost seems to some like he wants it both ways.
SMITH: Cooper says two days ago, President Obama would have been accused of the same thing. But now, Cooper says Romney faces a new challenge.
COOPER: I mean, it is a vulnerability. And you've got the presumed nominee for the - for my party who is left now holding the bag, so to speak.
SMITH: Cooper says Romney will face mounting pressure to clarify what kind of equality he does support. No one expects him to do an about-face on marriage, but Cooper says Romney may well soften his tone or shift emphasis. There were hints of it already. Today, Romney restated that he thinks it's, quote, "fine for gay couples to adopt children." Yesterday he called gay marriage a, quote, "difficult and tender issue," and chose his words carefully about civil unions.
ROMNEY: I don't favor civil unions if they're identical to marriage other than by name. My view is that domestic partnership benefits, hospital visitation rights and the like are appropriate.
COOPER: Essentially, he was trying to put forward language that left the door open.
SMITH: Cooper says it's always the way politicians start evolving.
COOPER: We've seen this in the House and Senate. Lawmakers started out talking that way and then eventually got to the point where they, you know, fully were in support.
BRIAN BROWN: They're making things up.
SMITH: Brian Brown, with the National Organization for Marriage, says any suggestion that Romney is softening his stance is just wishful thinking.
BROWN: Mitt Romney yesterday said I'm not going to change this position at this point or ever.
SMITH: Brown says Romney will benefit by underscoring the new sharp contrast with President Obama.
BROWN: The mask is off. President Obama has made quite clear where he stands, and this does not fly in places where Democrats have to win.
SMITH: Brown says the approval this week of a constitutional ban on gay marriage in North Carolina proves the point, but that is just one state. National polls continue to show growing support for gay marriage, now somewhere around 50 percent. Tovia Smith, NPR News.