Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich declined Friday to outright reject a new law legalizing same-sex marriage in Washington state, saying if it is approved by voters it will at least be enacted "the right way."

The former House speaker's comments came on a visit to the state Capitol where he also met privately with Republican legislators. Washington's Democratic governor signed the gay marriage bill last week and it will take effect in June unless opponents can gather enough signatures to force a fall referendum.

Gingrich cited the possibility of a public vote in appraising the hot-button issue, noting that judges have authorized same-sex marriage in other places.

"I think at least they're doing it the right way, which is going through voters, giving them a chance to vote and not having a handful of judges arbitrarily impose their will," Gingrich said.

A November referendum is not guaranteed. Opponents of the Washington law need more than 120,000 valid voter signatures needed by June 6 to put the law on hold pending a referendum.

Gingrich made clear he opposes gay marriage personally and would vote no on such a referendum if one ever came up in his home state.

His posture was different than rival Rick Santorum, who campaigned in Washington the same day the law was signed.

Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, questioned the effectiveness of having states decide the definition of marriage. He supports a federal constitutional amendment making marriage exclusively between a man and a woman.

"I think that at least from my perspective it tends to water down marriage instead of encouraging men and women to form healthy marriages, and that to me should be the objective of the government because that is in the best interests of our society," Santorum said after a meeting with church leaders organizing a ballot drive to block the Washington law from taking hold.

Washington state has had domestic partnership laws since 2007, and in 2009 passed an "everything but marriage" expansion of that law, which was ultimately upheld by voters after a referendum challenge.

Minnesota and North Carolina have measures on upcoming ballots to write gay marriage bans into their state constitutions. And same-sex marriage opponents in Maryland have taken the first steps to bring legislation legalizing gay marriage passed by the state's Legislature this week to a voter referendum on the November ballot.

Gingrich has spent two days campaigning in Washington ahead of the state's March 3 caucuses. He heads Saturday to San Francisco for a speech to the California GOP convention, where he said he'll dissect President Barack Obama's latest energy address "paragraph by paragraph."

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Associated Press writer Rachel La Corte contributed to this report.