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Romney can gain votes on gay marriage issue, religious leaders say

President Barack Obama's endorsement of same-sex marriage is energizing Christian conservative support for Mitt Romney in a way that the likely GOP nominee has so far not been able to do on his own, according to religious leaders and activists.

Pastors in Ohio, North Carolina, Florida and other swing states are readying Sunday sermons inveighing against same-sex unions, while activist groups have begun laying plans for social media campaigns, leafleting drives and other get-out-the-vote efforts centered on the same-sex marriage issue. Romney could benefit from a strong turnout among evangelicals and other social conservatives, many of whom have been skeptical of his commitment to their causes.

"So many people were rather lukewarm toward Gov. Romney and were really looking for some more tangible reasons to support him," said Phil Burress, president of Citizens for Community Values, who led the ballot drive that banned gay marriage in Ohio in 2004. "Then lo and behold, it just fell out of the sky when Obama came out and endorsed same-sex marriage. ...We are going to make this our key issue -- the attack on marriage."

The National Organization for Marriage, a leading anti-gay-marriage group, promised to campaign against him "ceaselessly" in swing states.

Same-sex marriage has long been a galvanizing force. But the president's public embrace of the idea alters the landscape.

Romney and other establishment Republicans have tread softly on the issue so far, but many evangelicals think that a forceful anti-gay-marriage campaign could pay huge dividends in the fall.

Some on the religious right also remain deeply uncertain about Romney's convictions on cultural issues and are unhappy with his statements in recent days that he supports allowing gay couples to adopt children and that he does not view same-sex marriage as a religious issue. Many activists say they will continue to push Romney on the issue.

"Romney says he is for traditional marriage and then immediately says he is fine with homosexuals adopting children," said David Lane, who organizes conservative pastors and congregations nationwide and helped lead anti-gay-marriage efforts in Iowa, California and other states. "Our base does not react well to that."

Some conservatives also hope the issue drives a wedge between black voters, who largely oppose same-sex marriage, and the president. The Rev. John Coats II, who leads an African-American church in Columbus, Ohio, and plans to preach Sunday posing the question: Why doesn't the black community produce politicians who reflect the community's values?

"I'm not saying they will be pushed to the point to vote for Romney," Coats said of black voters. "But I believe it will increase voter apathy, and I have to say I'm surprised, and somewhat delightfully, that people are taking a closer look at this president who would never do that before."