Vice President Joe Biden said on Sunday that he was "absolutely comfortable" with same-sex marriages and was heartened by their growing acceptance across the country, a position that moves well beyond the "evolving" views that President Barack Obama has said he holds on the issue.
The comments, which aides described as the off-the-cuff views of a vice president not known for fidelity to a script, sent the White House scrambling to clarify that Biden was not articulating an official change in policy.
In an interview on NBC's Meet the Press, Biden invoked some of the same language that advocates of same-sex marriage use, speaking of family, equality and love.
"I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men and women marrying one another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties," Biden said, while noting that the president, not he, sets policy on such matters.
Biden's unexpectedly expansive remarks made him by far the highest-ranking White House official to move closer to a formal embrace of same-sex marriage, which is now legal in six states and the District of Columbia but is unrecognized by the federal government. The Obama administration has endorsed civil unions but not marriage for gay couples.
The vice president's comments are likely to intensify pressure on Obama, who says he is still wrestling with his feelings about same-sex marriage, to take a clearer stance on it before the presidential election this fall, something the White House has shown reluctance to do.
Biden's aides, in insisting that he was not deviating from White House policy, pointed to a 2010 statement by the vice president that the country was moving toward a "national consensus" on same-sex marriage. And in Sunday's interview, Biden did not say explicitly that the federal government should recognize it.
But gay rights advocates, who spent Sunday morning parsing Biden's words, said the president's running mate had, in their analysis, conveyed new and unmistakable support for their biggest cause.
Biden called the debate surrounding the issue a simple question of "who do you love?" and "will you be loyal to the person you love?"
"That's what people are finding out is what, what all marriages, at their root, are about," he said, "Whether they're marriages of lesbians or gay men or heterosexuals."
Biden, a devout Catholic, said previously his personal views on gay marriage were evolving.
Obama faces growing calls from gay and lesbian voters and a formidable array of wealthy gay donors to support same-sex marriage and make it a part of the Democratic Party's platform at its convention. Many of his supporters believe that he privately backs it but is unwilling to say so before a general election that may be decided in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, where such a position could provoke a backlash.
In 1996, as a candidate for the Illinois Senate, Obama answered on a candidate's questionnaire, "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages." But after he became president, White House officials said Obama had been referring to civil unions.
Since then, Obama has repeatedly said he believes that gay couples should have the same rights as heterosexual couples, but he has not used the symbolically freighted term marriage, as Biden did.
Gay rights leaders expressed frustration and dismay on Sunday over attempts by the White House to play down Biden's words and said that Obama's own endorsement of same-sex marriage was long overdue.
"Trying now to walk this back will only hurt them," said Richard Socarides, a former White House aide who advised President Bill Clinton on gay rights. "You can't clarify an answer as direct and candid and expansive as the one he gave."
The issue has become a hot topic in two potential swing states, with North Carolina voting this week on a measure to ban same-sex marriages and Maine voting on a measure in November to legalize them.