By Ellen Wulfhorst and Daniel Trotta
(Reuters) - New Jersey Governor Chris Christie dropped his legal opposition to same-sex marriage on Monday, making his state the 14th to legalize gay marriage but angering social conservatives who might be crucial to his presidential ambitions in 2016.
Proponents of gay marriage celebrated the end of their 11-year campaign and opponents criticized Christie for his reversal, saying he risked losing the Republican Party presidential primary, which tend to be strongly influenced by conservatives.
A unanimous New Jersey Supreme Court decision on Friday paved the way for legal gay marriages to go ahead. The court denied the governor's attempt to put them on hold while an appeal was heard. Deciding that fighting the law was futile, Christie withdrew the state's appeal on Monday morning.
"He's definitely guaranteed losing the Republican primary," predicted Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, a nonprofit political group established in 2007 to campaign against the legalization of gay marriage. "When the going gets tough, throw in the towel? That is not what a leader does."
New Jersey municipalities began accepting applications for marriage licenses for same-sex couples on Friday, and mayors around the state began officiating at weddings just after midnight on Monday.
About nine hours later, Christie dropped the appeal that could have left those newlyweds in limbo.
"Although the governor strongly disagrees with the court substituting its judgment for the constitutional process of the elected branches or a vote of the people, the court has now spoken clearly as to their view of the New Jersey Constitution, and, therefore, same-sex marriage is the law," his office said in a statement.
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Social conservatives said Christie should have kept fighting even though the court made clear he was likely to lose and despite opinion polls showing 2-to-1 support for gay marriage, including a first-ever plurality of Republicans in New Jersey.
Christie, heavily favored to win re-election as governor next month and widely considered a contender for a White House run in 2016, has said the issue should be decided in a referendum.
Ben Dworkin, political science professor at Rider College near the state capital, Trenton, said by staking out his position as wanting voters to decide, Christie "should be fine in his presidential ambitions."
"Today's decision I think allows him to thread the needle politically speaking," Dworkin said. "He's able to continue to say that he opposes a redefinition of marriage, and that he opposed this decision by the court. But he understood where the court was going and so he simply wasn't going to waste dollars fighting it."
National surveys show voters favor same-sex marriage. In July, a Gallup poll found 52 percent of Americans would vote for a law making same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states compared to 43 percent who said they would vote against such a law. A Pew Research Center poll in May found 50 percent of respondents favored allowing gays and lesbians to marry compared with 43 percent who were opposed.
Backers of the view that marriage should only be between a man and a woman dispute any impression that nationwide same-sex marriage is inevitable. They note that a majority of 36 states do not allow it. In states such as Indiana, Republicans are pushing ahead with a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
In New Jersey, a Rutgers-Eagleton Poll released on Monday found support for legalizing same-sex marriage at 61 percent, versus 27 percent who oppose it. The poll of 799 registered New Jersey voters found 49 percent of Republicans support same-same marriage versus 37 percent who are opposed.
Christie, a former federal prosecutor, has enjoyed bipartisan popularity since he famously boosted the re-election chances of President Barack Obama last year by embracing his response to Superstorm Sandy. While New Jersey voters applauded Christie for putting the state's interests ahead of politics, national Republicans responded to the gesture with dismay.
Christie has built a reputation for reaching across party lines in instances such as his friendship with Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a liberal Democrat elected last week to the U.S. Senate.
"I don't think social conservatives will see him as a reliable ally at all, and I don't think you can win a Republican nomination without significant support from social conservatives," said Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council in Washington, a conservative Christian group.
Among the officials performing the early-morning marriage ceremonies was Booker.
"Tonight we have crossed a barrier," Booker told the newlyweds, their families and friends. "While you all have fallen into love, the truth is the state of New Jersey has risen to love."
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal government definition of marriage as between a man and a woman, but stopped short of saying there was a federal right to same-sex marriage, ensuring years of state-by-state battles such as the one in New Jersey.
(Additional reporting by Victoria Cavaliere and Dave Warner; Editing by Grant McCool)