Rove: "I could" see a 2016 GOP candidate supporting same-sex marriage

"I could" see a Republican candidate for president in 2016 endorsing same-sex marriage, Republican strategist Karl Rove told ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, further underscoring just how quickly public attitudes on the issue are changing.

In recent years, Rove has very publicly tried to nudge his party closer to the center of public opinion on a variety of topics - a task he has taken on with renewed urgency in the wake of Republicans' 2012 election losses. Given polls showing a quickly increasing base of support for same-sex marriage, it is understandable that the electability-minded Rove could envision a GOP candidate publicly supporting the right of gay couples to get married.

But he didn't always think support for gay rights could be smart politics. In 2004, Rove was the chief strategist for then-President Bush's reelection campaign, and was credited with helping engineer anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives in several states - most crucially, Ohio - to gin up turnout among an evangelical Christian base that largely supported the incumbent. Bush was reelected by a slim margin, and many analysts credited the swollen turnout among evangelicals for his victory.

In terms of public opinion, though, 2004 was light years away from today. A recent poll from The Washington Post and ABC News showed 58 percent of Americans in favor of same-sex marriage, the highest such number ever recorded. Only 36 percent of respondents were opposed to gay marriage. Even 34 percent of Republicans in the survey said they support gay marriage (59 percent were opposed.)

Among younger voters, the divide becomes even more pronounced: a full 81 percent of voters between 18 and 29 support same-sex marriage. Even a majority of Republicans between 18 and 49 years old signaled support for same sex marriage, 52 to 43 percent.

But despite the increasing support for gay marriage - and the generational divide that suggests greater support to come - Republican leaders have shied away from publicly evolving on the issue. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, announced last week that he now supports same sex marriage after one of his sons came out of the closet, but Portman's conversion story is largely unique in the GOP at this point. Since his announcement, no major elected official has opted to follow Portman's lead, and House Speaker John Boehner, a close ally and friend of Portman's, reaffirmed his opposition to gay marriage shortly after the Ohio senator's disclosure.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, architect of a recent autopsy of the 2012 election results that focused on how to make the GOP into a winning majority party again, told Politico that Republicans will not be "throwing Rob Portman under the bus," arguing that the GOP can accommodate "different views."

Still, Priebus said, "we're not compromising our principles."