NEW YORK (AP) – As same-sex marriage cases cascade through the federal courts, Republican politicians find themselves awkwardly split into three camps.
There's a small but growing number who favor legalizing gay marriage, a hard-core faction that continues to denounce it, and a sizable group in between that seems to wish the issue would disappear.
At one end of the spectrum, at least eight GOP members of Congress have endorsed same-sex marriage, and two openly gay GOP candidates for the House hope to join them.
In Massachusetts, Richard Tisei has run ads featuring his husband. In California, Carl DeMaio ran an ad showing him and his long-term partner in San Diego's gay-pride parade.
On the other flank, conservative Republicans in Congress have introduced legislation seeking to protect states from being forced to recognize same-sex marriages. One of those lawmakers is Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a potential presidential contender who drew applause at a recent conservative gathering by saying, "We stand for marriage," and insisting that his party not shy away from "family values."
Then there's the large group in middle, not ready to embrace same-sex marriage but wary of antagonizing its supporters, including what polls suggest is a solid majority of Republicans under age 30.
Several GOP governors fit into this category, including Chris Christie of New Jersey, Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada. Each decided within the past year to back away from all-out legal fights against gay marriage.
Sandoval said Nevada's gay-marriage ban "is no longer defensible in court."
In the Great Lakes region, three GOP governors who are up for re-election and may be nursing presidential ambitions rarely raise the topic on their own.
Rick Snyder of Michigan, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio haven't disavowed past support for their states' bans on gay marriage, but don't seem eager to make it a high-profile issue as the bans are challenged in court.
The Supreme Court may soon say whether it will take up one or more same-sex marriage cases in its term that begins Monday. Were the justices to rule that gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to marry in all 50 states, some activists and political analysts believe it would be a relief for the GOP's 2016 presidential hopefuls.
"Then they wouldn't have to talk about it," said Evan Wolfson, who heads the advocacy group Freedom to Marry. "They'd really like the Supreme Court to finish the job and be able to move on."
For now, the issue remains volatile in several campaigns.
Three conservative groups, including the National Organization for Marriage, recently told GOP leaders in Congress that they would actively oppose Tisei, DeMaio and the GOP Senate nominee in Oregon, Monica Wehby, in large part because of their support for same-sex marriage.
"These candidates are betraying the party," said the group's president, Brian Brown. "The base of the party is very solid on social issues. The leadership cannot throw this base to the curb and expect to win any national election."
From the other direction, American Unity PAC, launched in 2012 by billionaire hedge fund manager and Republican donor Paul Singer, has been donating money to federal and state GOP candidates who support same-sex marriage. Money from the political action committee helped Rep. Richard Hanna, a gay-rights supporter, fend off a more conservative challenger in the June primary in the central New York district.
Jeff Cook-McCormac, a senior adviser to American Unity, said the GOP establishment is increasingly reluctant to take an aggressive stance against same-sex marriage, which is legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia.
"Republicans now recognize that focusing on this issue in a divisive way doesn't sell," he said. "People on both sides of the issue can and should be able to peacefully coexist."
At an American Unity event in Washington on Thursday, the president of a leading gay-rights group, Chad Griffin of the Human Rights Campaign, said Republicans have "an indispensable role" in the push for marriage equality and nondiscrimination laws.
"Once folks realize that LGBT people and our families aren't boogeymen, that we have real stories to tell, that's when we start to move forward not as Democrats and Republicans, but as Americans," Griffin said.
A major test for the GOP may come at its 2016 national convention in Cleveland, when a coalition called Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry will learn the results of its campaign to strip the party platform of a plank opposing same-sex marriage.
The campaign's manager is Tyler Deaton, a GOP state committeeman in New Hampshire.
"The Republican Party has to become much more respectful and inclusive of gay people and the people who love them," Deaton said. "It's the right thing to do. It's the politically smart thing to do."
Among the members of the Young Conservatives' leadership committee are Meghan McCain, daughter of GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and the three eldest daughters of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a GOP moderate who ran for the presidency in 2012.
Another political offspring, Mary Cheney, spoke Sept. 17 at a dinner hosted by the gay GOP group Log Cabin Republicans. In 2012, Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, married her longtime partner — a union that caused a rift last year with Mary's sister, Liz.
"Simply and clearly affirming the rights and dignity of gay men and women will not make us a weaker party — it will help make us a majority party," Mary Cheney said.
A former head of the GOP Senate campaign committee, political consultant Rob Jesmer, predicted that the same-sex marriage issue would fade in prominence as today's young Republicans take a bigger role in the party.
"It's going look completely out of step to oppose it under all circumstances," Jesmer said. "For people 40 and under, they look at you like you're from Mars."