From the San Francisco Chronicle

Gay rights moved to the forefront of the presidential campaign Tuesday after Democratic Sen. Barack Obama’s announcement that he opposes a November ballot measure that would ban same-sex marriage in California.

In a letter to San Francisco’s Alice B. Toklas Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Democratic Club, the presumptive presidential nominee said he opposed “the divisive and discriminatory efforts to amend the California Constitution” and similar efforts in other states.

Obama’s position on Proposition 8 was announced at a club event Sunday after a move by Arizona Sen. John McCain, the expected GOP standard-bearer in November, who last week told officials of Protect Marriage, a coalition that gathered 1.1 million signatures for the California measure, that he backs their efforts “to recognize marriage as a unique institution between a man and a woman.”

For both campaigns, the decision to get involved in the same-sex marriage debate carries political risks.

California is one of three states with same-sex marriage bans on the November ballot. While the state is seen as Obama country, and Arizona is McCain’s home state, Florida, the third state seeking to limit marriage to a man and a woman, is a swing state that will be a major prize in the November election.

Obama is skating gingerly past his previous position on the issue.

The Illinois senator has said repeatedly that he believes marriage should be only between man and a woman. When the California Supreme Court overturned the state’s ban on same-sex marriage in May, Obama released a carefully nuanced statement saying he respected the court’s decision, believed states should make their own decisions on marriage and “will continue to fight for civil unions as president.”

But civil unions, gay activists argue, aren’t the same as marriage, and they say his earlier stance would put Obama on the wrong side of what’s increasingly seen as a civil rights issue.

Support welcomed

Groups opposing Prop. 8, which would amend the state Constitution to say that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California,” were excited to have Obama on their side and more than willing to overlook his mixed record on the same-sex marriage issue.

“It’s great to see Sen. Obama’s statement, which is consistent with what he has said in the past about allowing each state to make its own decision,” said Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality for All, which is heading the Prop. 8 opposition. “Is it ideal that he doesn’t support same-sex marriage? No. But it’s important when political leaders say gay and lesbian couples should be treated equally.”

Still, the Obama campaign didn’t go out of its way to announce the senator’s position on a controversial California ballot measure that will have repercussions across the nation. Instead of a splashy public endorsement ceremony, complete with beaming supporters of same-sex marriage, Obama announced his support midway in his letter, which was read at the club’s annual breakfast.

That didn’t bother Julius Turman, co-chairman of the club.

“I was thrilled to see the senator step up to the plate and say how he feels about discrimination,” he said. And while Obama might personally oppose same-sex marriage, Turman said the candidate “is well on the way to being educated.”

But Prop. 8 supporters accused Obama of trying to have it both ways by coming out publicly against same-sex marriage, but opposing any efforts to ban those unions.

“His position makes very little sense,” said Brian Brown, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage, California. “If he’s opposed (to same-sex marriage), he should just say so. Instead, he’s trying to appease the wealthy elite who support gay marriage.”

It’s no surprise to see McCain on the side of the same-sex marriage ban. While he opposed a GOP-backed federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in 2004, he supported a failed 2006 Arizona initiative that would have blocked domestic partnerships as well as same-sex marriages.

Both Obama and McCain have called for individual states to decide how to handle same-sex marriage, and the November elections will show where voters in those three states stand.

Early polls show that while the Prop. 8 race is likely to be a close contest in California, many of the young and liberal voters who back Obama are strongly opposed to the same-sex marriage ban. But those groups of voters don’t have nearly as much clout elsewhere in the nation. A CBS poll taken early in June showed that only about 30 percent of American voters favored legalizing marriage for same-sex couples.

A single loss

Only one of the more than two dozen state ballot measures banning same-sex marriage has ever lost, and that was the 2006 Arizona measure that also would have eliminated domestic partner benefits in the state.

But while the same-sex marriage question will come up during the fall campaign, experts don’t believe it will have the same effect as it did in 2004, when politicians like California Sen. Dianne Feinstein suggested that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s open door to same-sex marriage might have cost Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry the presidency.

Nationwide, the country’s economic woes and the war in Iraq are likely to play much more of a role than same-sex marriage in the November election, said Bruce Cain, a UC Berkeley political science professor.

“Obama’s position (on same-sex marriage) can be used against him in a few states, like Ohio and Pennsylvania,” Cain said. “But same-sex marriage is unlikely to have anything like the impact it did in 2004 since issues like the economy and the war will provide him with a lot more cover than Kerry had.”

Ballot measures

Text of measures to amend state constitutions:

California: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

Arizona: “Only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in this state.”

Florida: “Inasmuch as a marriage is the legal union of only one man and one woman as husband and wife, no other legal union that is treated as marriage … shall be valid.”