Washington:  Ending months of hedging, Barack Obama has become the first US President to endorse same-sex marriage, a move that has set the stage for an election year clash over the polarising social issue.

Obama said his views on this issue have evolved now and he thinks that same-sex couples should be able to get married.

"At a certain point, I've just concluded that for me personally it is important ... to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married," he said yesterday in a hastily-arranged interview with a news channel.

Obama's statement prompted potential Republican challenger Mitt Romney to say that he continues to believe that "marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman" and that Obama had "changed his view" on the issue.

"I have the same view on marriage that I had when I was Governor (of Massachusetts) and I've stated many times. I believe marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman," Romney said at a campaign.

Another Republican leader Rick Santorum, who withdrew from the Republican presidential primaries recently, said that Obama had "consistently fought against protecting the institution of marriage from radical social engineering at both the state and federal level...

"The charade is now over, no doubt (it is) an attempt to galvanise his core hard left supporters in advance of the November election."

Giving reaction of the various camps on the statement made by the US President, The New York Times wrote: "With Nation Split, Obama Calls It a Personal Conviction."

The Washington Post wrote: "Obama's announcement gave an immediate jolt to the decades-long movement for gay equality at a moment when a growing number of states are moving to ban — or legalise — same-sex unions and as polls show a majority of Americans support marriage rights."

"The potential dangers for Obama could be seen just one day before his announcement, when voters in North Carolina, a swing state critical to his re-election, voted overwhelmingly for a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex unions," the Washington Post said.

Obama's decision is not without political risk, said The Los Angeles Times.

"President Obama's historic endorsement of gay marriage draws praise and cash from supporters but could carry a political cost in the South," it said.

In his interview, Obama said the First Lady also thinks the same way.

"This is something that, you know, we've talked about over the years and she, you know, she feels the same way, she feels the same way that I do. And that is that, in the end the values that I care most deeply about and she cares most deeply about is how we treat other people.

"...We are both practising Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others but when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it's also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated," he said.

Citing opinion polls, The Los Angeles Times said nationally, a slim majority of voters favours gay marriages, a majority that has been increasing because of shifting attitudes among young people and middle-class voters.

Still, religious, African-American, Latino and older voters remain more likely to express opposition, and 38 states have adopted prohibitions of same-sex marriage, according the National Conference of State Legislatures, it said.

(Agencies)

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