(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.

(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.

Fifty-five percent of Americans and seven out of 10 young people support allowing gay couples to marry. A majority of Republicans, 52 percent, oppose it.

Forty percent of Republicans say state legislatures should continue pushing for laws curbing abortion rights. That's almost double the 22 percent among all Americans who hold that position, according to a Bloomberg National Poll conducted Sept. 20-23.

The findings reflect challenges for the Republican Party at a time when it's working to boost its appeal with young people, women and minority voters to improve its national electoral prospects after 2012 losses.

The April reaffirmation of the party's opposition to gay marriage, passage of more than 200 anti-abortion-rights state bills in recent years, and the imposition of voter- identification rules by Republican-controlled legislatures may create even deeper wedges with those coveted constituencies.

"I just don't think that you can have laws that dictate who you fall in love with and want to spend the rest of your life with," said Florida poll participant Jennifer McCaffrey, 38, a registered nurse who considers herself Republican. "I'm pretty conservative in my views, but I feel like they should have the same benefits. I don't see anything wrong with it."

Voters support candidates and parties for a myriad of reasons, including their religious beliefs, economic standing and family traditions. Yet some issues, such as gay marriage and abortion rights, are considered touchstones that help drive support or opposition.

"For many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the party is a place they want to be," a March 18 report on the 2012 presidential campaign results from the Republican National Committee said. "If our party is not welcoming and inclusive, young people and increasingly other voters will continue to tune us out."

The risk for Republicans, nationally and in some states, is that maintaining an aggressive stance on those cultural issues could widen or harden support gaps evident in the exit polling of the 2012 presidential election.

In winning re-election, President Barack Obama garnered 55 percent of the women's vote, 11 percentage points more than Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Among voters younger than 30, Obama won 60 percent support, more than 20 points higher than Romney's share. The president also won 93 percent of the black vote and 71 percent of the Hispanic vote.

"The math isn't working to Republicans' favor," said J. Ann Selzer, president of West Des Moines, Iowa-based Selzer & Co., which conducted the poll for Bloomberg. The survey of 1,000 adults has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points on the full sample and larger on subgroups.

A June 26 U.S. Supreme Court ruling cleared the way for gay marriage in California and invalidated a federal law that denied benefits to married same-sex couples. One upshot of the decision was to move the issue back to state legislatures where Republicans have pushed for laws and constitutional amendments to ban such unions.

McCaffrey, who lives in Tampa, said her views are shaped partly because she has family members who are gay. "I don't want them to be excluded," she said.

Since the release of the RNC's "Growth and Opportunity Project" report, which urged a more inclusive tone and attitude toward those who disagree with the party on abortion rights, Republican lawmakers have passed dozens of measures to restrict access to the procedure.

This week, House Republicans unsuccessfully tried to attach anti-abortion-rights language to a measure that would lift the U.S. debt ceiling, which administration officials have said must be done by Oct. 17.

Poll participants were also asked about abortion in reference to bills passed by state legislatures since 2011.

Thirty-nine percent said current restrictions have gone too far and some should be repealed, while 29 percent said the current restrictions are acceptable yet states shouldn't do more. Even a majority of Republicans, 51 percent, said either the current level is fine or states have gone too far. Four in 10 self-described party members want lawmakers to press for more limitations.

"From the words and actions of Republican legislators, you would expect Republicans to support greater restrictions on abortion, but a majority of them do not," said Selzer.

The political risks on abortion are playing out in this year's race for governor in Virginia, a state that has become closely contested in presidential elections and is considered a bellwether for future political contests.

Recent polls show that Democrat Terry McAuliffe has taken the lead over Republican Ken Cuccinelli, powered largely by a lopsided advantage among women voters.

McAuliffe, the former head of the Democratic National Committee, is working to exploit the gender gap by portraying Cuccinelli, the state attorney general, as a candidate who is ideologically driven and hostile to women's rights and concerns.

The McAuliffe campaign has spotlighted Cuccinelli's efforts in the Virginia legislature to defund the women's health organization Planned Parenthood, which runs abortion clinics; his support for legislation recognizing life from the moment of fertilization, which critics contend would lead to a ban on several common forms of birth control; and his opposition to no- fault divorce laws.

In a Washington Post survey conducted Sept.19-22, McAuliffe led with 49 percent to Cuccinelli's 44 percent, and a Sept. 17- 19 NBC/Marist poll also had the Democrat up 5 percentage points, 43 percent to 38 percent.

Both surveys showed McAuliffe with an advantage among women that outweighs Cuccinelli's edge with men. In the Post survey, McAuliffe was backed by 59 percent of women to Cuccinelli's 35 percent a 24-point advantage while Marist had McAuliffe 18 points ahead among female voters.

On the issue of race, more than a third of the nation's African-Americans said in the Bloomberg poll that relations are getting worse, almost five years into the administration of the first black president.

Eighteen percent of blacks said matters are improving, compared with 29 percent of whites who hold that view. Among non-whites, which includes blacks, Hispanics and others, 31 percent say things are getting worse compared with 24 percent of whites.

The survey's findings come as the Supreme Court is scheduled next month to hear a case that stems from a 2006 Michigan ballot initiative involving race being used as a factor in college admissions. Other court challenges are being waged on voter-ID laws that critics say disadvantage minorities, the elderly and other groups.

National debates over race have occurred repeatedly during Obama's presidency, most recently in late August during the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington.

That commemoration of the 1963 march was held two months after the Supreme Court struck down a key tenet of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a decision that drew criticism from both the White House and Eric Holder, the country's first black attorney general.

The 2012 shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer in July were mentioned by some poll participants as signs of deteriorating race relations.

Some responses to the case "that I read showed me that we have regressed from the progress that we made years ago," said Ron Miser, 69, a retired U.S. Air Force computer programmer who is black and lives in Midwest City, Okla.