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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After years of "evolving" on the issue, President Barack Obama said on Wednesday he believes same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, a stance that is likely to please his political base and complicate efforts to attract some independent voters.
"It is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married," Obama said in an interview with ABC's Robin Roberts.
Obama's comments marked the first time a U.S. president had publicly expressed support for gay marriage, and his position was hailed by Democrats, gay rights groups and others as a benchmark for civil rights in the United States.
"This is a major turning point in the history of American civil rights" said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent whose city is in one of six states that allow same-sex marriage.
Neera Tanden from the Center for American Progress described the president's expression of support as "another large step toward realizing this country's promise of equality."
Others, including Republican activists and conservative Christian leaders, criticized Obama's stance and called it a huge political risk on a divisive issue.
Some said it could lead independent voters who oppose gay marriage to support Mitt Romney, Obama's likely Republican opponent in the November 6 election. Noting that 29 states have approved bans on same-sex marriage, they said Obama's announcement also could help Romney consolidate support among evangelical Christians who, like Romney, oppose gay marriage.
"Today's announcement ensures that marriage will again be a major issue in the presidential election," said Tony Perkins, a prominent evangelical leader and president of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian group. "The president has provided a clear contrast between him and ... Mitt Romney."
Added Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition: "This is an unanticipated gift to the Romney campaign. It is certain to fuel a record turnout of voters of faith to the polls this November."
Romney, campaigning in Oklahoma City, said he believes "marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman." He has said he supports hospital visitation rights and other domestic partnership benefits for gay and lesbian couples.
Analysts saw Obama's move as a calculated risk at a time when polls indicated that an increasing number of Americans support legally recognizing gay marriages.
A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll said that more than 39 percent of Americans believe same-sex couples should be allowed to marry legally. Another 23.5 percent said that such couples should be allowed to form civil unions but not marry, while nearly 27 percent opposed marriage or civil unions for gay and lesbian couples.
"It is not without political risk," Democratic strategist Julian Epstein said on MSNBC. "Polls show that nearly every segment of the population" is moving toward acceptance of gay marriage, but "Republicans certainly will try to use it as a wedge in the African American community and with non-college educated white voters," key voting blocs in which many people oppose gay marriage.
Obama's comments came three days after Vice President Joe Biden said in a television interview that he was comfortable with gay marriage.
Senior administration officials indicated that Obama - who had walked a fine, politically sensitive line in supporting gay rights but not gay marriage - decided earlier this year to support same-sex marriage.
They said he initially planned to announce his change in position for such marriages before the Democratic National Convention in September.
The officials acknowledged that Biden's comments had moved up that timetable and said the president was not upset at Biden over his remarks.
During the ABC interview, Obama described his views as personal and said he still believed that individual U.S. states should be able to decide on the issue for themselves.
Obama, who ended the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that prevented gays from serving openly in the U.S. military, said his thinking was affected by watching members of his staff who are in committed same-sex relationships and thinking about "soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained."
Obama told ABC that his daughters were an influential factor and that his wife, first lady Michelle Obama, shared his views.
"You know, Malia and Sasha, they have friends whose parents are same-sex couples," Obama said. "There have been times where Michelle and I have been sitting around the dinner table and we're talking about their friends and their parents, and Malia and Sasha, it wouldn't dawn on them that somehow their friends' parents would be treated differently."
Obama added, "It doesn't make sense to them and frankly, that's the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective."
Obama's switch is unlikely to have much impact on the legal issues associated with gay marriage, said James Esseks, director of the ACLU LGBT Project, which supports gay rights.
The Obama administration already had declined to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law barring federal recognition of same-sex marriage.
Most gay-rights battles today are taking place in the courts and in the states, where the White House is not an active participant, Esseks said.
The trends surround gay marriage in the United States - a rising number of Americans supporting it even as a rising number of states ban it - contrasts with how such unions are viewed in other western nations.
Same-sex marriages are legal in several European countries, including Spain and the Netherlands.
British Prime Minister David Cameron is facing a backlash from some in the Anglican Church over his efforts to legalize same-sex marriage. A recent online survey by Catholic Voices, a group that opposes same-sex marriage, said that 70 percent of Britons believed that marriage should continue to be defined as a lifelong union between a man and a woman.
In the United States, nearly two-thirds of Democrats support same-sex marriage, along with more than half of independents, while fewer than one-quarter of Republicans believe it should be allowed.
Obama's remarks were celebrated by Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, which said he had "made history."
Republican gay rights activists praised the decision but were more muted.
"I am sure the president's newly discovered support for marriage is cold comfort to the gay couples in North Carolina," said Christopher Barron, chief strategist of GOProud.
North Carolina voted on Tuesday to join 28 other states that have voter-approved constitutional bans on same-sex marriages, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Six states and the District of Columbia allow gay and lesbian marriages. In Colorado on Wednesday, a bill that would have granted civil unions to same-sex couples failed to advance to a full vote.
Additional reporting by Deborah Charles, Laura MacInnis, Matt Spetalnick and Steve Holland; Editing by David Lindsey and Cynthia Osterman