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Cultural Shifts Leave GOP Candidates Searching for Answers

Image: Supporters of same-sex marriage

Eric Breese of Rochester, New York, joins fellow George Washington University students and hundreds of others to rally outside the Supreme Court during oral arguments in a case challenging the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) on March 27, 2013 in Washington, D.C. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

The 2016 Republican presidential candidates are being thrown off balance by the rise of a new set of cultural issues, from marijuana legalization to attending same-sex weddings, that pit the views of conservative voters against a rapidly changing and increasingly liberal American culture.

The divides over "guns, God and gays" from the 1980's and 1990's have either disappeared or been totally reshaped over the last few years, leaving the Republican candidates fielding questions they seem at times completely unprepared to answer.

The debate over the legality of gay marriage, which the U.S. Supreme Court will take up in a much-watched case on Tuesday, appears to be nearing an end, with court rulings across the country striking down gay marriage bans and many in the Republican Party effectively conceding the issue.

But the GOP 2016 candidates are being aggressively pressed by both the media and LGBT activists with questions on gay rights that go beyond simply accepting that same-sex marriage is permissible.

The Numbers Behind Same-Sex Marriage Legalization 1:18

Asked whether they would attend a same-sex wedding, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, both declined to answer and complained about the question from Hugh Hewitt, a conservative talk host who is friendly to Republican candidates.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said he had attended a reception but not a wedding for a same-sex couple.

“That’s the gotcha question that the left tries to get out there,” Perry told Hewitt, who then repeated it.

When Cruz attended a reception in New York hosted by two gay businessmen, he was sharply criticized by fellow Republicans, who suggested it was a contradiction, since the businessmen support gay marriage and Cruz strongly opposes it.

On immigration, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is attacking President Obama for his executive action last year that would in effect grant legal status to undocumented immigrants who are adults, arguing Obama abused his executive power. But Rubio has said if elected he would not immediately rescind the 2012 executive action Obama took to grant legal status to young adults and children, leading the conservative site Breitbart to blast him as supporting “amnesty.”

“The kids are in a very unique situation because they didn’t willingly break the law. They came here … through no fault of their own,” Rubio spokesman Alex Conant told Breitbart.

Asked about the legalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado and if the federal government should do anything to stop it, some of the 2016 candidates have given contradictory answers that illustrate their lack of firm stands on the issue.

“I don’t know. I’d have to think about it,” Ohio Gov. and potential 2016 candidate John Kasich told Hewitt.

The challenge around these social issues was most clearly demonstrated a few weeks ago, when Bush strongly defended a so-called religious freedom law in Indiana, then two days later backtracked.

Polls show a clear divide on these issues between younger voters and older ones, who tend to be more conservative. Fifty-three percentage of Americans overall and 68 percent of people under age 34 support marijuana legalization. But only 39 percent of Republicans and 29 percent of voters over 70 hold that view, according to the Pew Research Center. The majority of Americans support gay marriage and creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but much of the base of the Republican Party disagrees with both positions.

It’s not just the Republicans who must deal with a changing American culture. Both President Obama and Hillary Clinton, opponents of same-sex marriage in 2007, have completely reversed themselves in the eight years since. In this campaign, Clinton is likely to be asked about her views on transgender Americans, particularly in the wake of the attention around former Olympian Bruce Jenner’s “I’m a woman” announcement last week.

A series of police shootings of black men will test how far Clinton will embrace the “black lives matter” activists, who at have times criticized officers in pointed ways.

But Clinton is in an easier position, with a huge advantage in the Democratic primary over her potential 2016 rivals.

The Republican candidates must grapple with the party’s donors, such as the gay businessmen Cruz was addressing, who generally live in big cities and are supportive of gay rights. At the same time, nearly all of the candidates are competing for the religious conservatives who shape the outcome in Iowa, South Carolina and other states.

Walker in Iowa: It's Time to Make America Great Again 0:44

“Our own scrutiny must also include Senator Ted Cruz. Does his association with aggressive 'married' homosexual activists (who apparently do not feel threatened by his rhetoric, but on the contrary, wish to donate to his campaign) raise concerns for those of us down in the valley fighting a painful and costly war for what’s left of religious freedom? Of course, it raises legitimate concerns, “ wrote Cary K. Gordon, an influential conservative pastor in Sioux City, Iowa.

A few of the candidates have indicated they will not be moving left on these issues, no matter public sentiment. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, another 2016 candidate, has said he would not attend a same-sex wedding, telling Hewitt, “that would be a violation of my faith.”

“Marriage is between one man and one woman. Polls indicate that the American consensus is changing — but like many other believers, I will not change my faith-driven view on this matter, even if it becomes a minority opinion,” Jindal wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece.

In fact, so far all of the Republicans candidates have essentially the same position on gay marriage: they believe marriage is between a man and a woman, but would not push for federal legislation or a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex unions.

Democrats say such a position is untenable politically.

“I believe we will never again elect a President that opposes same-sex marriage. The rhetoric has cooled some, but the Republicans are still more than a couple of steps behind the country, and dozens of steps behind younger Americans of both parties. Watching a politician explain to younger voters why they oppose marriage equality is so uncomfortable it makes you cringe, it's almost as if they are speaking two separate languages,” said Dan Pfeiffer, who was until recently President Obama’s top political adviser.