As couples across New Jersey began marrying on Monday after the stroke of midnight, Gov. Chris Christie abandoned his long fight against same-sex marriage, concluding that signals from the court and the march of history were against him.
His decision not to appeal a judge’s ruling that allowed the weddings removed the last hurdle to legalized same-sex marriage in New Jersey, making it the 14th state, along with the District of Columbia, to allow gay couples to wed.
Mr. Christie’s advisers said it became clear late on Friday that the fight had to end after the State Supreme Court announced it would not grant the governor’s request to block same-sex marriages while he appealed.
Not only did the court decision say that his appeal had no “reasonable probability of success,” it was also unanimous — signed by the justices Mr. Christie has long warred against and by the one he considered on “his” side, Justice Anne M. Patterson.
The governor concluded that, legally, he was out of arguments, and that it would be what one aide called a “fool’s errand” to continue in the face of almost certain failure.
Politically, members of his staff bet that they could contain the damage by arguing that the governor had never changed his mind — he still opposes same-sex marriage — and blaming activist judges, which even critics of the governor’s decision began doing on Monday.
“He looks realistic, while sticking to his principles — and people are happy,” said one adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss strategy.
Mr. Christie, a Republican widely considered a leading contender for his party’s presidential nomination in 2016, has long tried to walk a fine line on same-sex marriage, which polls show is popular in his home state, but opposed by conservative voters in important primary states. Last year, he vetoed legislation allowing same-sex marriage, saying voters should decide the issue in a referendum. As recently as last week, he repeated his position that he believed marriage to be between a man and a woman. But he also signed a bill outlawing so-called gay conversion therapy, which angered conservatives.
Even if he lost on the marriage issue, his aides said, Mr. Christie could still promote himself as the kind of politician voters embrace, because they know where he stands, even if they do not agree with him.
The dizzying events in New Jersey showed how quickly the politics of same-sex marriage have changed.
Starting at midnight and into early Monday, same-sex couples from Asbury Park to Jersey City wed in emotional ceremonies that had been hastily arranged after the court denied Mr. Christie’s request for a delay.
At 8:30 a.m., lawyers representing the couples who had sued to be allowed to marry received calls from the administration, telling them that the governor had dropped his appeal. In a conference call later, lawyers for Lambda Legal said that they expected to prevail with similar litigation in Nevada, Virginia and West Virginia, and that they were optimistic about their chances in the legislatures in Hawaii and Illinois.
“I think the handwriting was on the wall as clearly as it could possibly be,” said Lawrence S. Lustberg, a lawyer who argued the case for gay and lesbian couples before a trial court.
“The governor had always said he would fight this all the way up to the Supreme Court,” Mr. Lustberg added, “but he didn’t say he was going to fight it to the Supreme Court twice. As a matter of reasonable lawyering on the one hand, and a clear perception of what the court’s position was on the other, this was inevitable.”
Just four months ago, even advocates for same-sex marriage believed that the governor had firmly blocked it. A coalition of state and national gay rights groups was pushing to override his veto of same-sex marriage legislation, but they were far short of the votes they needed.
In September, Judge Mary C. Jacobson of State Superior Court ruled that the state had to allow gay marriages to comply with the United States Supreme Court decision in June that guaranteed same-sex married couples the same federal benefits as heterosexual married couples. In 2006, a New Jersey Supreme Court decision guaranteed equal protection to same-sex couples, which prompted the State Legislature to enact civil unions. But the United States Supreme Court decision meant that couples in civil unions did not have the same benefits as those in marriages.
A Rutgers Eagleton poll released on Monday found that a majority of respondents, including a majority of those supporting Mr. Christie in his bid for re-election on Nov. 5, did not want him to pursue the appeal.
Mr. Christie is trying to roll up as big a margin of victory as possible next month so he can cast himself as a presidential candidate who can win even in blue states. Continuing to oppose same-sex marriage against the images of the jubilant weddings might have hurt that effort.
His Democratic opponent, State Senator Barbara Buono, sought to remind voters that he had tried “to block the rights of gays and lesbians at every turn.”
“It took a determined effort by brave individuals,” Ms. Buono added, “and a unanimous decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court to force the governor to drop his appeal. I am thrilled the court ended his ability to enforce his bigoted views that are contrary to the values of our state.”
But even prominent Republican donors had been among those financing a campaign to override Mr. Christie’s veto, suggesting that the national politics of same-sex marriage might be shifting. Aides to the governor acknowledged that his decision might alienate primary voters who already doubt his social conservative credentials, but they added that he was never going to have an easy time in the Iowa presidential caucuses.
Still, the administration was not exactly celebrating the position it was in. Announcements from Mr. Christie’s office typically arrive with a news release, a video and a Twitter post. This one came in a sober note from a spokesman to reporters early on Monday; there was no announcement on the governor’s Web site.
“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 note said, “the court has now spoken clearly as to their view of the New Jersey Constitution and, therefore, same-sex marriage is the law.
“The governor will do his constitutional duty and ensure his administration enforces the law as dictated by the New Jersey Supreme Court.”
National conservative groups criticized “an activist judiciary run amok,” in the words of the National Organization for Marriage. But they also had harsh words for Mr. Christie, for, as the organization said, “throwing in the towel.”
“The mark of a leader is to walk a principled walk no matter the difficulty of the path,” said the statement from the organization’s president, Brian Brown. “Chris Christie has failed the test, abandoning both voters and the core institution of society: marriage as the union of one man and one woman.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 22, 2013
An earlier version of this article misstated the court where oral arguments regarding gay marriage were made. Lawrence S. Lustberg argued the case for gay and lesbian couples before a trial court, not before the State Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, which denied the Christie administration’s request for a delay in the start of gay marriages, decided the case based on legal filings; there were no oral arguments.