Same mentality, different year.

Conservative Republicans are once again debating whether they should remain bigoted against gay people, or whether they should dwell in the 21st century. What's different in 2013 is that the political stakes are higher than ever before, and that their intramural conflict is more intense than ever before.

As the Supreme Court prepares to weigh arguments on whether to strike down laws banning gay marriage, dozens of prominent Republicans have signed on to a legal brief that supports marriage equality for all. The list includes several top George W. Bush advisers and four ex-governors.

These Republicans argue that gay marriage is in sync with conservative principles because it "maximizes individual freedom." They also clearly recognize that the party needs to be in sync with a socially tolerant electorate; ex-presidential candidate and legal brief signer Jon Huntsman Jr. warned last week that Republicans must join the new century - because otherwise, "the marketplace of ideas will render us irrelevant."

These folks have indeed seen the light; the problem is, they remain stymied by the GOP's dark side.

John Boehner and the House Republicans have put up a few million bucks to sustain the legal battle against gay marriage (great use of tax dollars in this time of austerity), and their stance isn't likely to change. And here's a brand new example of bigotry in action:

A few weeks from now, the biggest annual bash on the conservative calendar will be staged in Washington — that's the Conservative Political Action Conference, better known as CPAC — and thousands of true believers will show up. Various failed candidates (Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Paul Ryan, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich) will try to shore up morale, new prospects (Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz) will try to paint a bright future, and a few hot-button types (such as gun-fetish lobbyist Wayne LaPierre) will dispense the requisite red meat. Virtually all the conservative groups have been invited.

But two groups have not been invited. The gay groups.

Shocking, I know. But that's the mentality, and unless it changes, Republicans will continue to lose national elections.

GOProud, a small gay organization that believes in small government and fiscal prudence, was kicked out of CPAC because prominent conservative groups objected to its presence. Back in 2011, those groups actually boycotted the CPAC confab; we're talking about the Heritage Foundation (right-wing think tank), the Family Research Council (religious right powerhouse), Liberty Counsel (part of the Jerry Falwell empire), Concerned Women for America, and the American Family Association. The AFA said it would stay home rather than share convention space with what it called "the deviancy cabal ... a menace to human and social health."

CPAC made amends to those groups last year. They did so by telling GOProud to stay home. That's the deal again this year: the groups are in, secure in the knowledge that the deviancy cabal is out. And GOProud will share exile with the Log Cabin Republicans, a longtime gay conservative group. Log Cabin decided not to ask for a CPAC invitation, saying that it prefers to "choose its battles."

It speaks volumes about the conservative mentality that this kind of bigotry persists even though it's clearly a political loser - moreso, with each passing year. In fact, gay voters arguably swung the '12 election to President Obama; according to exit polls, he and Romney split the straight vote, 49 percent apiece, but Obama won among self-identified gays, 76-22 percent.

Gay voters aside, the conservative mentality turns off straight swing voters. Fifty two percent of women now support gay marriage (a 12-point hike in just three years, according to Pew surveys); 64 percent of voters under 30 support it, too. And according to a recent Washington Post-ABC poll, Republicans aged 18-44 are now deadlocked on gay marriage for the first time (46-46), precisely because younger Republicans increasingly support it.

Some on the right seem to understand the problem.

Ted Rogan, a conservative who's furious about the GOProud exclusion, wrote the other day: "Times are changing. But unless we conservatives are willing to face up to the unmitigated absurdity of (advocating) liberty alongside sexual segregation, swathes of otherwise reachable voters will continue to regard are movement as undeserving."

And Daniel Fister, news editor at National Review Online, said that, at minimum, conservatives need to forge a "peaceful coexistence" with gays because "the center of the country is becoming more gay-friendly."

As GOProud's executive director said from exile the other day, "they need to deal with the political reality." No kidding. Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. If they persist in defying reality and demonizing gays, the tally may well be six of seven.

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Rest in peace, C. Everett Koop, the legendary Philadelphia pediatric surgeon who died yesterday at 96. As Ronald Reagan's U.S. surgeon general, he was a conservative hero - until he candidly addressed the AIDS epidemic. In an historic 1986 report, he said: "We are fighting a disease, not people." Conservatives were furious because he refused to demonize gays. Koop took the heat with a shrug; as he told me in a lengthy 1987 interview, "I'm a health officer talking facts." Here's my piece.

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