Save for a punchline from GOP mega-donor Foster Friess about the Chick-fil-A protests and a full-throated speech from former Sen. Jim DeMint, the conversation from CPAC’s main stage about gay marriage has been non-existent. More time was devoted to panel discussions about women’s issues and abortion than to gay marriage.

It was an especially stark contrast on a day when the Republican establishment was answering questions about Portman’s conversion on gay marriage. Instead of being lambasted in speeches, it was as if Portman didn’t exist…

Voters are mostly “not going to bed at night worrying about gay marriage, quite frankly,” no matter their feelings on the issue, said Republican strategist John Brabender, who has worked with Santorum for decades. “They’re wondering why their paycheck is going down.”

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Portman’s move, and his timing, angered those, like Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage, who have been working to stop efforts to legalize same-sex marriage.

Brown said he believes that Portman coordinated his announcement with same-sex marriage supporters.

“There is a concerted effort to pick off Republicans and make us appear divided,” he said, arguing that same-sex marriage efforts have only succeeded in “deep blue states that Republicans have not won statewide in forever.”…

“He’s going to be held accountable by the voters of Ohio,” said Brown, who was attending the annual Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington. “The issue of his son going out as gay is not a public policy decision.”

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In response to the Portman endorsement, a spokesman for Republican House Speaker John Boehner said, “Senator Portman is a great friend and ally, and the Speaker respects his position, but the speaker continues to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman.”

It was a sentiment echoed by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who said, “As a matter of personal religious conviction, I’ve always believed in marriage, I believe in the traditional marriage between a man and a woman. But again, I think Senator Portman is entitled to his positions, and you know we are a party of diversity and, I think, of respect.”…

Renee Knight Leberry, from South Carolina, who also personally opposes same-sex marriage, said that she didn’t think Portman’s conservative credentials were diminished at all by his pronouncement on Friday.

“I respect him; it’s his choice, and as a Christian conservative, I respect anybody’s choice. That’s his son, and he loves his son. I don’t think it would be right to judge him for supporting his son.”

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Even if you support some kind of conservative accommodation to same-sex unions, it’s not ideal to have conservatives “seeing the light” because it affects them personally, even if they couch their conversions, as Portman does, in terms of his gay son helping him “gain a new perspective.” Empathy is a crucial moral virtue, but it isn’t always the best guide to public-policy debates, pace our friends on the left.

Besides, there are big, angry blocs on both sides of the issue that are unlikely to give Portman the benefit of the doubt. (As I’m writing this, Matt Yglesias is insufferably tweeting about how global warming is going to wipe several small islands off the map and how it’s “too bad Portman’s son doesn’t live on one.”) It’s eerie how closely Portman’s CNN interview mirrored President Obama’s on the issue, right down to the torrent of disclaimers up front (“I just feel that for me personally it’s important to affirm. . .”). But unlike the famous evolver-in-chief — who was always given winking credit on the progressive left for being secretly pro-gay-marriage, even as he extolled traditional marriage — Portman is going to be treated as self-serving by majorities on both sides.

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Why, they asked, should it take the realization that a member of your family is affected to arrive at a position that reflects nothing more or less than a regard for equal rights and a belief in justice? And if same-sex marriage isn’t just—which is what the many lawmakers who oppose it evidently believe—then should your position on it change merely because it hits close to home and because opposition has a negative practical impact on someone dear to you?

Those are great questions. Appropriate ones, too. But to a certain extent, they ignore human nature—the imperfections of it, the complexities of it—and they disregard how many people who support gay rights got to the place they now proudly inhabit…

In any case, my question for and about Portman, a decent and thoughtful man I’ve known for many years, isn’t why it took a gay son to move him to his current stance, but whether it really took a gay son to do that, and whether he was here or almost here a while back, but just didn’t say so.

What’s too infrequently noted or written is how many Republicans who aren’t on the party’s far right have privately, silently accepted and supported gays and lesbians but have stayed publicly mum, and articulated contrary positions, in the interests of political survival. A big part of what’s changing now isn’t their hearts. It’s their belief that they can be true to their hearts without committing political suicide, because America has made extraordinary progress, and because there’s no turning back.

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Far from touching off a Beltway political firestorm, Portman’s announcement that he has a gay son and now supports same-sex marriage drew a muted or even positive response from his fellow members of the Republican elite.

The reality Portman’s flip-flop exposed is this: among the Republican political community, the people who actually run campaigns and operate super PACs, support for gay marriage is almost certainly a solid majority position. Among strategists born after the end of the Vietnam War, it’s not even a close call…

“While age is an obvious factor that relates to views on the issue of gay marriage, so too does income, education level, living in the Northeast. If you think about many political consultants being upper-income Northeastern folks, then that might contribute to them [leaning] more favorably toward gay marriage than Republicans more broadly,” said Anderson, who supports gay marriage…

“The political consulting class in the Republican Party is, and has been for a long time, well to the left of the Republican voters. Whether folks like that or not, it’s just plain true,” said GOP strategist Curt Anderson, no squish himself.

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Mr. Portman’s announcement, which he said he made in part because his son is gay, has so far yielded relatively little pushback from Republicans on blogs and social media, or from other Republican office-holders. Instead, gay rights advocates are increasingly finding support from influential Republicans.

But the rank and file of the Republican Party may be different, and the polling suggests that they have largely not changed their views on same-sex marriage…

According to an average of seven recent surveys on same-sex marriage, as shown in the chart above, only 26 percent of Republicans support same-sex marriage rights as compared with 54 percent of independents and 66 percent of Democrats. Attitudes among Republican voters may shift on the issue by 2016, particularly if more respected conservatives like Mr. Portman announce their support for same-sex marriage, but it is less than clear that his position will reflect a broadly acceptable viewpoint among Republican primary and caucus voters by that time.

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The question is whether same-sex marriage rises to the level of a “gateway issue” — that is, whether opposition to same-sex marriage causes voters not to consider supporting Republicans.

Republican consultant Liz Mair cited an analysis of polling by Freedom to Marry, an organization supporting same-sex marriage, showing 51% of Republicans under age 30 support gay marriage. “There’s something that needs to be addressed here, and it needs to be addressed now,” she said…

Republican support of gay marriage might draw new supporters, National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg said during the panel discussion, but at a cost. “You’re going to have to show me where we’re going to replace the 30 million evangelicals and social conservatives who will leave,” if the party embraces gay marriage.

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Progressives are wrong to demand tolerance and denounce rhymes-with-late. People advocating for the liberty to love must also protect the liberty to rhymes-with-late and leave others be regarding their beliefs and emotions. The correct approach is the conservative one, which is concerned with limiting the coercive powers of government. This means that social conservatism has no business coveting the coercive powers of government to impose religious beliefs in civil law. It means that in a nation founded on the protection of religious liberty, social conservatives must be content with what they can accomplish in the marketplace of ideas using only the powers of persuasion. In the marketplace of ideas, they can believe anything and be as rhymes-with-lateful as they want…

However, regarding conservative gays being treated courteously by conservatives, I do say there is no such thing as a courteous way to tell gays they are unworthy of equality. It is indeed an intrinsically offensive statement to make and position to hold. (It’s worth noting I first said this to Mark Steyn when he was standing in for Rush Limbaugh in 2010 and he invited gay conservatives to call in and discuss how we were being treated by the tea party. I told him I’ve been treated very well by the tea party — except for that.)…

So, what is it like being gay at CPAC? More than ever, it’s a joy. The only true friends gays have are conservatives. We can settle our differences in Constitutional terms, which will be articulated by conservative attorney Ted Olson before the Supreme Court when he argues for marriage equality in the Prop 8 and Defense of Marriage Act cases before it on March 26 and 27.

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“Well, our country is dealing with changing attitudes and prejudices relating to gay people,” [GOProud Executive Director Jimmy LaSalvia] told us. “I think that people who just don’t like gay people are bigots, but I don’t think that people who are wrestling with the issue or thinking about the issue differently are necessarily anti-gay. I just don’t …. I know that many people, like you heard tonight, come at it from a religious tradition, and you know, they’re struggling with the issue. But I can’t call them bigots, because I don’t believe that many people in their hearts truly just don’t like gay people.”

To Margaret Hoover, the Republican gay-rights activist (and great-granddaughter of Herbert), such a position is a diplomatic necessity for someone trying to win over fellow Republicans to the cause of gay rights. “Jimmy’s trying to grow a movement,” she told us…

“I don’t want to call people bigots! I don’t think it’s helpful,” she told us. “Because you know what, what does that get me?”

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Via Mediaite.