WASHINGTON (AP) - On the fence no longer, President Barack Obama declared his unequivocal support for gay marriage on Wednesday, a historic announcement that gave the polarizing social issue a more prominent role in the 2012 race for the White House.
The announcement was the first by a sitting president, and Republican challenger Mitt Romney swiftly disagreed with it. "I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman," he said while campaigning in Oklahoma.
Gay rights advocates cheered Obama's declaration, which they had long urged him to make. Beyond the words, one man who married his gay partner in Washington, D.C., was stirred to send a $25 contribution to the president's campaign. "Making a contribution is the best way to say thank you," said Stuart Kopperman.
David Peters, right, and Luke Whited, a gay couple who were joined in a civil union in Illinois, show their rings in New Orleans on Wednesday.
Obama revealed his decision after a series of events that made clear the political ground was shifting. He once opposed gay marriage but more recently had said his views were "evolving."
The president said he was taking a personal position. Aides said the president's shift would have no impact on current policies and he continues to believe that marriage is an issue best decided by states.
"I have hesitated on gay marriage in part because I thought that civil unions would be sufficient," Obama said in the interview. He added, "I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people the word 'marriage' was something that evokes very powerful traditions, religious beliefs and so forth."
Now, he said, "it is important for me personally to go ahead and affirm that same-sex couples should be able to get married."
He spoke on the heels of a pair of events that underscored the sensitivity of an issue that has long divided the nation.
Vice President Joe Biden said in an interview on Sunday that he is completely comfortable with gays marrying, a pronouncement that instantly raised the profile of the issue.
On Tuesday, voters in North Carolina approved an amendment to the state constitution affirming that marriage may only be a union of a man and a woman.