By Patricia Zengerle and Samuel P. Jacobs
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Tim Kaine, a Democratic candidate for Senate and one of President Barack Obama's closest allies, met with reporters on Tuesday to discuss politics nationally and in his home state, Virginia.
And here's what everyone wanted to know: What do you, Tim Kaine, think about gay marriage?
Thus began an inquiry in which a clearly uncomfortable Kaine, a former Roman Catholic missionary, crossed his arms and, while carefully avoiding an endorsement of same-sex marriage, stressed that "I believe in the legal equality of relationships."
The scene reflected how Democratic candidates and office-holders are being drawn into the political hornets' nest that Vice President Joe Biden created on Sunday when he endorsed the right of same-sex couples to wed.
Biden's comments on NBC's "Meet the Press" program drew attention to Obama's carefully crafted position of supporting gay rights but not same-sex marriage. That has put the president to the right of most Democrats - and most of the nation, recent polls suggest - on the politically divisive issue.
In an election year in which Obama, Kaine and other Democrats are battling conservative Republicans for the attention of independent voters, Biden's remarks have spawned a not-so-welcome barrage of questions for leading Democrats.
For now, it appears that prominent Democrats who campaign or give interviews should expect to be asked about gay marriage.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a close friend of the president's, learned that on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" show on Monday, when he was asked for his position on the issue and said gay marriage should be legal.
Democratic North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue, whose state votes Tuesday on an anti-gay marriage amendment to the state constitution, was pressed for her position on MSNBC's "Daily Rundown." She said she was against the amendment, but not for gay marriage, Politico reported.
White House spokesman Jay Carney was peppered with questions about Obama's stance during Monday's White House daily briefing and was asked about it again on Tuesday.
He played down Biden's comments, insisting they were no change from Obama's view that "committed and loving same-sex couples deserve the same rights and protections enjoyed by all Americans."
Kaine, a former Virginia governor, faces George Allen, a former governor and U.S. senator, in the November 6 election to replace retiring Democrat Jim Webb.
The battle between Kaine and the conservative Allen, who has opposed same-sex marriage, will be among the most-watched races in the nation. Virginia is a politically divided state with a large conservative Christian population and will play a crucial role in the presidential race between Obama and Republican Mitt Romney.
A recent Washington Post poll showed Kaine and Allen in a dead heat, each with support from 46 percent of Virginia voters.
During Tuesday's breakfast meeting in Washington sponsored by Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, it was clear that Kaine would rather talk about other things.
When pressed on the subject, he said, "I believe in the legal equality of relationships.
"The debate about, 'Is it marriage, is it a civil union, is it domestic partnership?' - I kind of let that one go, and say the legal issue is, 'Should committed couples be treated the same by law?' " Kaine said. "And I think the answer is yes."
Kaine, formerly Obama's hand-picked chairman of the Democratic National Committee, did not respond directly when he was asked whether he thought marriage was a civil right or whether the issue should be added to the Democratic Party's policy platform.
"Relationship equality is a civil right," Kaine said.
'VOLATILE, DIVISIVE ISSUES'
Former Ohio governor Ted Strickland, a Democrat who has experience winning support among moderates and conservatives in another politically divided state, said some candidates will take ambiguous positions on same-sex marriage because of their values or their recognition of the complex political landscape.
"Whether it's guns or God or gays, as they used to say, these are volatile, divisive issues," said Strickland, a co-chairman of Obama's campaign.
Strickland declined to take a position on gay marriage when he ran for governor of Ohio in 2006, and won, but has opposed efforts to ban gay marriage in his state.
Few voters cite gay marriage as one of the main reasons they back candidates, but a furor over marriage rights can be distracting to a campaign - particularly for Democrats, who typically attract more gay and lesbian voters than Republicans.
"It gets the Democrats off their game plan. It also energizes the right, especially in a state like Virginia, where there are lots of conservatives and where Democrats are barely holding on some of the time," said Julian Zelizer, an expert on presidential politics at Princeton University.
"It gives Republicans an opportunity sometimes to say, 'Hah hah, secretly these Democrats are left of center.'"
A Gallup Poll released on Tuesday indicated that half of Americans believe same-sex couples should have the same right to wed as heterosexuals.
There are sharp divisions from state to state.
Gay marriage is now legal in six states and Washington, D.C. The vote in North Carolina on Tuesday is about whether to become the 29th state to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and polls indicated it was likely to pass.
The issue is unlikely to go away, at least as far as the White House is concerned. Obama appeared on Tuesday in New York with Governor Andrew Cuomo, who backed a campaign that led to the legalization of same-sex marriage in that state.
On Monday, Obama will appear on the same stage at Barnard College in New York with Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry. The group is pushing for a debate over gay marriage at the Democratic National Convention in early September.
(Editing by David Lindsey and Philip Barbara)