WASHINGTON -- When the new attorney general of Virginia decided recently to oppose his state's ban on gay marriage, it might have been dismissed as an isolated move by a Democrat seeking to reverse Republican policy. But it underscored the speed and breadth of a fundamental change in the country.
Virginia isn't the only pivotal state where the tide has turned so dramatically. Florida and Ohio, other key presidential swing states, have seen huge shifts in public opinion. Both passed same-sex marriage bans in the last decade with support from almost two-thirds of their voters.
But 54 percent of Floridians now support same-sex marriage, according to a poll last year by the Public Religion Research Institute.
It could become a major issue in November elections, with Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott opposing gay marriage and his likely challenger, former Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-Democrat, supporting a court effort to overturn the state's ban.
And last month, six same-sex couples sued in Miami-Dade Circuit Court for the right to marry in Florida
Public opinion on same-sex marriage is changing at breathtaking speed. Voters across the nation are dropping their opposition, and many state gay-marriage bans just recently adopted are already coming under assault.
"On no issue in American life have opinions changed as fast as they have on gay rights," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster and political consultant. "It is truly a stunning development."
The change is especially vexing for Republicans, who used the issue to get conservative voters to the polls a decade ago and now are torn between their traditional stance and political base on one hand and the quickly changing political landscape on the other.
Among the most dramatic shifts are in politically key battleground states such as Virginia, which was a bellwether in the last two presidential elections.
The state's newly elected attorney general, Democrat Mark Herring, announced recently he would join a lawsuit to overturn Virginia's ban on same-sex marriage. It wasn't just an abrupt reversal from his Republican predecessor, Ken Cuccinelli -- who vehemently opposed gay marriage and who lost a bid for the governor's office in November -- it underscored a turn for the state itself.
As recently as 2009, Gallup found only 40 percent of Americans thought gay and lesbian marriages should be legally recognized. That number has swelled to almost 60 percent, including 81 percent of Americans under age 30, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll last year.
The survey was taken soon before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the Defense of Marriage Act last June, giving momentum to efforts to overturn prohibitions on gays and lesbians getting married.
Recent polling found Ohio voters support gay marriage as well. Ohio's Rob Portman became the first sitting Republican in the Senate to endorse same-sex marriage last year, quickly followed by Sens. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
Gay-marriage bans are under fire even in the deeply conservative states of Utah and Oklahoma. Federal judges in recent weeks struck down their bans as unconstitutional, decisions the states have appealed. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have legalized gay marriage.
, up from just two in 2008. A ballot initiative is in the works to add Oregon to the list, and there are more than 40 cases pending in state and federal courts challenging bans around the nation.
One or more of those cases might reach the U.S. Supreme Court fairly quickly and decide the question once and for all, said Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group.
He said the movement had made big progress on a state-by-state basis and would continue those local fights, but that the paramount issue was a ruling on whether it is constitutional to deny the right of marriage to gay and lesbian couples.
"It is ultimately the Supreme Court that is going to bring marriage equality to all 50 states," Sainz said.