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Political leaders look to get ahead of court on gay marriage

Historic gay rights cases arrive at the Supreme Court this week as even opponents of same-sex marriage acknowledge that public opinion has shifted against them.

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As the court prepares for oral arguments in two cases – one challenging the constitutionality of California’s ban on same-sex marriage, the other challenging the 1990s-era Defense of Marriage Act – the trickle of support among political leaders for marriage rights for gays and lesbians has continued to grow.

Speaking Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Ralph Reed, the head of the socially conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition, admitted that the political divide over same-sex marriage was “basically a jump ball.”

“It's clearly moved,” Reed said of popular opinion, though he disputed any notion that Americans have come to universally back same-sex marriage.

But the shifting politics appear to be accelerating even more quickly. When former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton formally announced her support for same-sex marriage a few weeks ago, the announcement was met in some quarters by surprise – usually that Clinton hadn’t made such a pronouncement already.

On the cusp of this week’s oral arguments – and, potentially, a Supreme Court decision later this June dramatically expanding gay rights – more political notables have announced their support for marriage rights. 

Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat representing swing state Virginia, wrote on his Facebook page on Monday that he now backs gay marriage "because it is the fair and right thing to do." 

 "Like many Virginians and Americans, my views on gay marriage have evolved, and this is the inevitable extension of my efforts to promote equality and opportunity for everyone," he wrote. 

Warner's comments came the day after Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from GOP-leaning Missouri, also announced her support for same-sex marriage. 

“My views on this subject have changed over time, but as many of my gay and lesbian friends, colleagues and staff embrace long-term committed relationships, I find myself unable to look them in the eye without honestly confronting this uncomfortable inequality,” McCaskill wrote Sunday evening on her tumblr page.

Missouri is one of 38 states that prohibits same-sex marriage, either through legislation, ballot initiative or state constitutional amendment. Those state-level prohibitions could still stand in the aftermath of a Supreme Court ruling, depending on how expansive the court’s eventual decision might be.

It’s also banned in Ohio, where Republican Sen. Rob Portman’s endorsement of same-sex marriage rights (prompted by his own son having come out as gay) earlier this month served as an even bigger watershed moment. Nine whole years after President George W. Bush proposed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, Portman – a member of the Bush administration, and a serious contender for the GOP’s vice presidential nomination in 2012 – had offered high-profile support to same-sex marriage.

Moreover, Bush’s own former political adviser, Karl Rove, said this weekend on ABC that he could envision a Republican candidate (though not necessarily the nominee) for president in 2016 supporting same-sex marriage. Already, Jon Huntsman, a 2012 contender for the GOP nod who could seek the nomination again in 2016, has announced his support for marriage rights.

And while the shift might hearten gays and lesbians who hope to marry their partners, the tide toward supporting same-sex marriage is certainly driven in part by political considerations. Fifty-one percent of Americans nationwide said in December’s NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll that they now support the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry. Just 30 percent of Americans backed marriage rights in spring of 2004, by comparison.

Republicans’ post-election autopsy last week noted, for instance, that “certain social issues are turning off young voters.”

“Already, there is a generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and the rights of gays — and for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the Party is a place they want to be,” the report read.

Political leaders looking to complete their political “evolution” on gay marriage (to borrow a phrase from how President Barack Obama described his own shift toward backing marriage rights) could receive political cover this summer. A Supreme Court ruling that effectively legalizes same-sex marriage across the country – a possible outcome, though not necessarily the likely one – could hasten the number of lawmakers who feel comfortable to publicly back same-sex marriage, or at the very least, abandon it as a wedge issue.

NBC's Carrie Dann contributed to this report.