The decision, in a swing state the president hopes to win again, shows how the issue can split the Democratic coalition and endanger his reelection.
The overwhelming North Carolina vote to define marriage as legal only between a man and woman is an unequivocal reminder that gay marriage remains unappealing in many parts of the country, even as its support grows overall nationally.
That's a warning for President Obama, who is currently positioned somewhere between supporters of gay marriage -- who include campaign backers and members of his own administration -- and resistant voters like those who helped pass the gay marriage ban this week in the Tar Heel State.
Obama's description of himself as "evolving" on the issue amounts to a public flirtation, and has prompted speculation that he'll become a gay-marriage supporter in time for the Democratic National Convention this summer in Charlotte. But the president is counting on North Carolina and demographically similar states, like Virginia, to lift him to a second term. Assuming an unpopular position on such a high-profile issue is politically perilous in those states and others where he may need every last vote to beat back Republican foe Mitt Romney.
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"It's clearly giving the White House and those in the campaign pause," said Jay Campbell, a Democratic pollster. "I don't think it's just North Carolina that's causing them concern. Every time this has come to a vote, with exception of one case, it has not turned out especially well for the pro-marriage equality side. That's all going into their thinking."