How Will Gay Marriage Play on the Ground?

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Associated Press + More

But has gay marriage entered into the dialogue here on the ground? Absolutely. And what we find in those conversations is what we may already know as Americans: That while our families, our pocketbooks and our communities may drive our choices come Election Day, our hearts — whether motivated or alienated — play a part as well.

Just listen to some of the many people talking now all across this bellwether state.

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To the east of Cincinnati, city sprawl turns to rolling hills where farm tractors and cars compete for space on the road. This is rural southern Ohio, the Appalachian region that shares a border with Kentucky and is home to tiny villages dotted with barns and Amish-owned shops. Life really feels a little slower in this place where, to so many, God and family matter more than anything material.

A few days after Obama's comments, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman campaigned across the region with Brad Wenstrup, a Republican candidate in the congressional House district that Portman formerly represented. Portman, whose name has been bandied about as a possible running mate for presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney, opposes same-sex marriage but doesn't think Obama's statement in support of it changes the paramount issues.

"I mean, what people care about is how are we going to turn this economy around and what do you do with these record debts and deficits."

That's still mostly true in a part of Ohio that can sometimes swing in election years. There are strong Democratic roots in the region but of the "Reagan Democrat" variety, because of views that can lean conservative on both fiscal and cultural issues. Democrat Bill Clinton carried this predominantly white and blue-collar swath of the state both times he ran. But then it became George W. Bush country, and Republican John McCain won over Obama here in 2008.

Paul Hall is the GOP chairman in Brown County, where the double-digit unemployment rate hovers above the national average. He said that while the economy ranks way above gay marriage as an issue, Obama's support of the matter won't help attract votes. "That won't play well here," he said.

Wallingford, the engineer who also serves as head of the Adams County Republican Party, echoes that remark. When Portman and Wenstrup made a stop at the Olde Wayside Inn in West Union, 62-year-old Wallingford wanted to know Wenstrup's views on gay marriage, abortion and guns. (The response: Against, pro-life and all for.)

Wallingford does put such social issues above even the economy in this election, and the gay marriage debate has only bolstered his views and his support of Romney, who opposes same-sex marriage.

"No. 1 for me is the morals of this country," said Wallingford, who believes his friends and neighbors will feel the same. "He (Obama) just lost this county. There's no way."

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The bustling campus of Ohio State University in Columbus is where Obama, little more than a week ago, decided to officially kick off his campaign for re-election. It was a nod to the role young voters played in helping him win Ohio in 2008, but also to the importance of getting that vote out again in 2012.

With a robust gay and lesbian community, Columbus last year was recognized as an "up-and-coming gay city" by readers of the website GayCities.com, while OSU was ranked by Newsweek as one of the top 10 most gay-friendly colleges in the United States.

If Obama's evolution on gay marriage was meant, at least in part, to invigorate both young and gay voters, he may have succeeded at least with some.

Student David Achille, 25, last year went to New York to marry his partner, Edward, after Ohio in 2004 passed a referendum banning same-sex marriage. One day last week, Achille was standing inside a jail-like cage on the grassy "Oval" where students hang out, dressed in a firefighter costume to raise "bail" money for the gay men's fraternity Sigma Phi Beta.

He heard about Obama's statement on Facebook, then watched for himself on YouTube. He said it "kind of made me rethink everything."