Minn. could test Obama influence on same-sex marriage

This May 19, 2011 file photo, a state trooper stands by as demonstrators on both sides of the same-sex marriage issue gather outside the Minnesota House in St. Paul, Minn. President Obama's Friday, June 1, 2012 visit to Minnesota is his first to a state with a same-sex marriage ban on its ballot this fall since he declared his support for letting gay couples legally marry.
AP Photo/Jim Mone, File

The political impact of President Barack Obama's support for same-sex marriage will be tested this fall in Minnesota, where opponents of a proposed same-sex marriage ban are hoping the president's enduring popularity here will help persuade skeptical Democrats to vote it down.

Obama's trip to Minneapolis on Friday comes three weeks after he announced his full support for the right of same-sex couples to wed, and it's his first trip since then to a state that will definitely have a same-sex marriage ban on the November ballot. Voters in Washington, Maine and Maryland - three other states Obama won in 2008 - are expected to vote on same-sex marriage.

Minnesota's version, which locals call the "marriage amendment," would toughen current limits on gay rights and etch the ban into the state constitution. Obama won 54 percent of the vote in the state and is expected to win it again this year, so opponents of the ban are hoping enough Minnesotans follow the president's self-described evolution on same-sex marriage so they can defeat it.

"We can all make fun of the president for saying he's evolving, but that's exactly what's happening in Minnesota, too," said Richard Carlbom, campaign manager for Minnesotans United for All Families, which is leading the campaign to defeat the amendment. "What Obama did is he actually demonstrated how a person can go from not thinking about the realities of the situation, to embracing it and affirming it as a fundamental freedom."

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Republican nominee Mitt Romney has yet to open an office in Minnesota, and it's unclear whether he will devote resources to trying to win the Democratic-leaning state that typically sees a certain degree of presidential campaign action every four years. If it doesn't become a seriously contested presidential battleground, it's likely the amendment would fail if opponents could simply persuade everyone who votes for Obama to vote against the amendment.

"It's going to take a lot of work and a lot of conversation," said Denise Cardinal, an influential Democratic activist in the state. "There are a lot of older (Democrats), maybe folks from rural areas who might say, `I don't really know anybody who's gay, and this doesn't really affect me."'

John Murphy, an expert on presidential rhetoric at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said it's not a stretch to think some Democrats previously unlikely to vote in favor of gay rights would be won over by Obama. When presidents take a new stand on a hot-button social issue, Murphy said, it can motivate dedicated party followers to change their own views and stay on the same page as their party's leader.

"I imagine his newly unequivocal support for gay marriage is likely to convince at least some die-hard Minnesota Democrats to swallow personal qualms they might have in order to give their side a win," Murphy said.

Still, supporters of same-sex marriage - even in traditionally Democratic states - have had little success convincing voters, losing all 32 recent statewide votes on the issue. Any gains for same-sex marriage supporters nationally have come through court decisions or legislative action.

The electoral losing streak is one that gay-rights activists in Minnesota and nationally desperately hope to halt this fall. The last year has shown a succession of national polls with support for same-sex marriage exceeding 50 percent, most recently a Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week finding 53 percent of respondents in favor.

In 2008, Californians gave Obama 61 percent of the vote over John McCain while simultaneously overturning a state Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage. The chief strategist in the California push against same-sex marriage, Frank Schubert, was recently announced as the campaign manager for Minnesota for Marriage, a coalition of evangelical and Catholic groups working to pass Minnesota's amendment.

"I won a campaign in California, which is as ironclad a Democratic state as you can find," Schubert said. "Democrats pick and choose when they follow the president and when they do not."

Chuck Darrell, spokesman for Minnesota for Marriage, said Obama's recent shift for same-sex marriage generated interest and enthusiasm for his group.

Minnesota's same-sex-marriage supporters aren't pinning all their hopes on Obama. Minnesotans United is reaching out to Republicans, citing evidence that the split over same-sex marriage is more generational than partisan.

"There's a lot of swirl on this issue," said Scott Cottington, a Minnesota-based national GOP strategist. Cottington said his kids, both in their early 20s, "think gay marriage is a basic civil right."

Romney opposes same-sex marriage and would limit recognition of same-sex relationships to letting states offer some rights to same-sex couples. He opposes civil unions if they extend benefits identical to marriage.

Representatives for Minnesotans United and the Obama campaign said there are no plans to coordinate campaigns, but the two groups could find mutual benefit in getting out the youth vote.

The president is scheduled to talk about jobs and attend a political fundraiser in Minneapolis, but Carlbom, of Minnesotans United, said he hoped Obama would continue to talk about his support for same-sex marriage.

"I hope he continues to spark respectful conversation," Carlbom said.