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Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna has made no secret of his opposition to same-sex marriage since entering the race and revealed this week he would vote to repeal a gay marriage law if it's on the ballot in November.
McKenna does back the existing domestic partnership law but wants to uphold the state law defining marriage as between one man and one woman.
"I will vote to maintain the current law and the current definition of marriage," McKenna said in an interview with KCPQ-TV, Channel 13 on Wednesday.
The state Democratic Party pounced on the comments Thursday, issuing a statement that the two-term attorney general "has attempted to deflect criticism of his opposition to marriage equality by saying that it is an issue that should go before voters -- and now we know how he will vote."
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, the leading Democratic candidate for governor, is a vociferous backer of the gay marriage legislation and wrote in an op-ed posted online Tuesday that he'd fight against its repeal.
"No politician should deny any of my fellow Washingtonians the right to marry," he wrote. "The rights and responsibilities of marriage are civil, they are legal, and now it is time that they be made equal."
It is not surprising this issue is already spilling over into the governor's race where both parties think it could sway enough voters to affect the outcome of what is expected to be a very close race.
Matt Barreto, a University of Washington professor of political science and director of the Washington Poll, said there may be risk in McKenna staking out his position this early.
"He was already going to win every single vote against gay marriage," he said. "He did not need to come out against it now."
McKenna might have done better to wait for a referendum to qualify before stating his position, Barreto said. Now, he will be associated with the emerging campaign against gay marriage, and if that effort is perceived as too extreme it could scare away independent voters.
Pro-Inslee forces are seizing on McKenna's comments, convinced it will prove very beneficial for the Democrat.
"In Washington state, opposition to gay marriage is the wrong position for a candidate for statewide office to have," said Paul Berendt, a former state Democratic Party chairman. "I believe it has given Jay Inslee's campaign a big shot in the arm."
Alex Hays, executive director of Mainstream Republicans of Washington and a supporter of gay marriage, disputed the notion the election could turn on the candidates' contrasting views on gay marriage.
"The fact that Jay Inslee is making gay marriage a central issue of his campaign is useless," he said.
Barreto and Republican strategists said Democrats are concerned President Barack Obama won't arouse as much interest among their party's young urban progressives as he did in 2008. If turnout of that critical bloc dips, it could would hurt Inslee and gay marriage may be the issue which stems a drop-off, they said.
"It is the Democrats' hammer to say Rob McKenna is an extremist. They need that hammer," said Randy Pepple, McKenna's campaign manager. "If the subject is about the economy, Rob wins. If the subject is the state of education, Rob wins. If the subject is the size and inefficiencies of state government, Rob wins. Democrats need to change the subject."
Barreto said at this stage, gay marriage may be better for Inslee than the president.
"I don't know if he'll ride the coattails of Obama more than he'll ride the coattails of a (gay) marriage referendum," he said. "My hunch is the (gay) marriage referendum would have a bigger impact on helping Inslee."
Such a referendum moved a bit closer Thursday after a state Senate committee approved a bill to legalize same-sex marriage.
The Government Operations, Tribal Relations & Elections Committee split along party lines in passing the measure on a 4-3 voice vote. Senate Bill 6239 now heads to the Rules Committee, its last stop enroute to the floor of the Senate for a vote. Action could come as early as next week.
On Thursday, the committee's Democratic majority turned back four Republican amendments, including one requiring the measure be put on the November ballot.
Opponents of same-sex marriage already promised to try to repeal it via the ballot if it becomes law.
Washington set up its domestic partnership law in 2007, and, two years later, expanded it with the "everything but marriage" law. Opponents tried to repeal it with Referendum 71 and failed.
It is believed Thursday's action marked the first time in state history a legislative committee voted on same-sex marriage.
Before this week, the fate of the bill was uncertain in the Senate where there was not a majority of support for the measure.
On Monday, after the first public hearing on the issue, Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, who had been undecided, became the 25th senator to announce her support. This all but ensured Washington will become the seventh state to allow gay and lesbian couples to get married.
The state House already had secured enough votes to pass the measure and Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire publicly endorsed the proposal earlier this month.
AP writer Rachel La Corte contributed to this report.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; email@example.com.
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