Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman oppose U.S. District Chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker's ruling overturning California's ban on gay marriage; Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer support it.
But none of the four showed much interest in talking about gay marriage a day after the landmark ruling.
Their reticence reflects the difficult politics of an issue that stirs strong passions but which cuts across traditional party lines.
"It's a danger to both parties if you have big chunks of your own constituency that are on the other side of the issue," said Morris Fiorina, a political science professor at Stanford University who is not related to the candidate.
The two Republicans at the top of the ticket, who both supported the gay marriage ban known as Proposition 8, released muted statements this week calling the federal judge's ruling one step in a long process. Whitman, the gubernatorial nominee, reaffirmed her belief that marriage is "between a man and woman" as well as her support for civil unions. Senate nominee Carly Fiorina said simply that Californians had "spoken clearly" at the ballot box and that she did not agree with the federal judge's ruling.
Boxer, the Democratic senator, hailed the decision with a single sentence as "a step forward in the march toward equal rights" that "reflects a growing legal consensus that marriage equality is protected by the U.S. Constitution."
Brown turned to social media, tweeting that the ruling was "great news for California" and asking his Facebook followers to fly a rainbow flag on their pages showing support for same-sex marriage. In his official capacity as attorney general, Brown said that Walker had come to the same conclusion he did when he declined to defend the ballot measure — that the ban "violates the equal protection guarantee of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution by taking away the right of same-sex couples to marry, without a sufficient governmental interest."
With voters so closely divided over the issue of gay marriage in California, several political observers said the candidates' reserved tone this week was not surprising. The ballot measure banning same-sex marriage was narrowly approved by 52.3% of California voters in 2008. The continuing divisions were reflected in a March poll — 50% of Californians said they supported same-sex marriage while 45% opposed it, according to the survey by the Public Policy Institute of California.
Fiorina said gay marriage is particularly thorny because it splits the base of both parties. While social conservatives were dominant players in the Republican primary campaigns, Whitman and Fiorina must also hold more moderate Republicans — particularly those in Silicon Valley who favor gay marriage, he said. "And in the Democratic Party you have a fair amount of social conservatives among Latinos and African Americans."
Others said there is little reason for the candidates to emphasize the issue because while it might energize some base voters, it is not likely to sway many undecided voters.
"We've basically chosen sides on this issue now," said Thad Kousser, who teaches political science at UC San Diego.
Perhaps for those reasons, none of the candidates are widely publicizing their positions.
On Thursday, the candidates' statements on the ruling did not even appear on their campaign websites (at least in a place where a voter could easily find them). And aides to all four candidates acknowledged that they did not plan to spend much time dwelling on the issue this fall.
"We just made the decision that our time is used most effectively if we talk about the things where the next governor can have some impact," said Brown's spokesman Sterling Clifford.
Asked about the issue, spokeswoman Sarah Pompei said that with 2.3 million people out of work she expected Whitman "to continue to focus on her plans to keep and create jobs in California."
Boxer's campaign manager Rose Kapolczynski and Fiorina's spokeswoman Julie Soderlund similarly promised that their candidates would keep the focus on the economy.
"Californians are split on this issue, and the results of Prop. 8 show that — so in the end this issue may be a wash," Kapolczynski said.
"I just don't think there's a good way of knowing right now if or how this will affect the election," she said.
In the end, outside groups may be most vocal.
National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown said there were perils for Brown and Boxer because a majority of voters approved Proposition 8. "People don't like being told they don't have a civil right to vote, and that's just what Judge Walker's done. So you either stand with the people of California or you stand against them."
A group called the Courage Campaign has demanded that Fiorina repudiate the National Organization for Marriage, which ran ads criticizing her primary opponent for supporting gay marriage and plans independent expenditures on her behalf this fall. Along with publicizing the candidates' positions on the issue, "we are focused on one thing, and one thing only, and that's turnout," said Rick Jacobs, the Courage Campaign's founder.