With the mid-term elections only weeks away, a leading contender for the Republican nomination for President has spoken out in favour of gay marriages – and against them.

Senator John McCain, seen by many gay and lesbians as the most acceptable Republican candidate for President in 2008, was answering questions at Iowa State University on Wednesday, as part of a tour of universities for MSNBC.

McCain, who at 70, is almost certain to be the oldest Presidential hopeful in next year’s contest, is seen as the acceptable face of Republicanism.

He was a keynote speaker at the Conservative party conference in Bournemouth at the start of October, and is seen as politcally close to the ‘new’ conservatism espoused by David Cameron.

On the divisive issue of gay marriage, the senior Senator for Arizona is clearly trying to please both sides of the argument.

McCain, a war hero who was held as a prisoner of war by the VietCong for six years, is broadly supportive of gay rights. When questioned on the subject of gay marriage, he first stated:

“I do believe, and I think it’s a correct policy that the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, a marriage between man and woman, should have a unique status.”

This answer will please the tens of millions of Christian and conservative voters that are key to any successful bid for the Presidency. He went on:

“But I’m not for depriving any other group of Americans from having rights. But I do believe that there is something that is unique between marriage between a man and a woman, and I believe it should be protected.”

The senator then went on to partially contradict himself, telling the students at Iowa State that:

“I think that gay marriage should be allowed, if there’s a ceremony kind of thing, if you want to call it that. I don’t have any problem with that, but I do believe in preserving the sanctity of a union between man and woman.”

So gay marriage is ok? Well yes, but then that is just a ceremony – Senator McCain then topped it all off by stating:

“I believe that people want to have private ceremonies, that’s fine. I do not believe that gay marriages should be legal.”

The sense of confusion about the subject is reflected in public opinion across the US, where many states have banned gay marriage but are considering a form of civil partnership.

As with the UK, it seems the word ‘marriage’ itself is what is being preserved as between a man and a woman, rather than the legal rights that a marriage brings.