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Gay marriage debate complicates San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s future

JULIET WILLIAMS, Associated Press

newsom SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has been linked to gay marriage ever since he directed city clerks to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004. Now he's running for governor and trying to broaden his appeal, but fate appears to be working against him.

The state Supreme Court's decision to uphold California's constitutional ban on gay marriage - and the prospect that an impassioned initiative to overturn it could share the ballot with next year's governor's race - holds consequences for candidates from both parties, but especially for the one most deeply associated with the issue.

The intensity of a statewide vote on same-sex marriage could make it difficult for Newsom to connect with centrist voters, millions of whom voted no on the issue last year.

"It certainly underlines Gavin Newsom's previous advocacy for same-sex marriage. I think that might be a two-edged sword for him," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the San Francisco-based Field Poll.

Other possible Democratic contenders including Attorney General Jerry Brown, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Lt. Gov. John Garamendi also support same-sex marriage. So does one of the three leading Republican hopefuls, former U.S. Rep. Tom Campbell, but former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman and state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner oppose it.

GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cannot run for re-election next year because of term limits.

Despite their liberal image, California voters have told pollsters repeatedly that they are divided over gay marriage. Even as they handed Democrat Barack Obama a 24-point win last November over Republican John McCain, they voted 52 percent in favor of Proposition 8, which overturned a state Supreme Court ruling earlier in the year that made same-sex weddings legal.

"If (Newsom) were to be the nominee, it would dominate the mainstream, the thinking of most voters, especially those outside the party who may not hold as sympathetic a perception of gay marriage," DiCamillo said.

Two groups, Equality California and the Courage Campaign, are beginning to coalesce behind a 2010 initiative rather than waiting until 2012. They are targeting the same demographics Newsom will have to win, starting with voters in the Central Valley, one of California's most conservative regions.

The area was largely ignored during the failed 2008 campaign against Proposition 8 and is among the regions where Newsom has the least support. Nearly 69 percent of Fresno County voters favored Proposition 8.

Newsom already has been touring the valley and stopping in other moderate to conservative areas, such as San Diego, in a bid to expand his appeal outside the San Francisco Bay area.

During an April town-hall-style event in Fresno, Newsom joked about newspaper editorials that questioned his bid for governor.

"They all said, 'Good luck when you go to Fresno.' The issue of marriage equality ... you can't win. The state rejects it," Newsom said. "I didn't do it because I waited for a public opinion poll to decide what my values were. I said I'm open to argument, always, but I believe in equality."

Some supporters argue that Newsom can turn a 2010 ballot initiative seeking to repeal Proposition 8 to his advantage.

Geoffrey Kors, executive director of Equality California, said if the 41-year-old Newsom is the Democratic nominee, he would draw younger, progressive voters who support same-sex marriage.

"Every one of the Democrats running for governor is a supporter of full equality, but clearly Gavin has done a great deal for the cause, at great political risk," Kors said.

The group has not endorsed a candidate.

Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said every politician wants to be known as a courageous leader, but few ever get the opportunity to lead on an issue of major importance and then follow through.

"I do think he accomplished that on the gay marriage issue. If he can use that to drive his platform of, that's who he is at his core, then that could be tremendously powerful," Lehane said.

Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant in California, said Republicans would do well to stay away from the gay marriage issue, no matter who the Democratic nominee is in 2010. Otherwise, he said, they'll risk further alienating young voters who already are turning away from the party.

"Ever since we have been moving from Ronald Reagan's red state California to Barack Obama's blue state California, social issues have been just a whole bunch of land mines that have caused enormous political trouble for Republicans," Carrick said.

Mike Spence, president of the California Republican Assembly, said gay marriage will be an issue in 2010 whether it's on the ballot or not, so GOP candidates should not shy away from it. The group is a conservative wing of the state GOP.

"On this specific issue, a majority of Californians agree with us. There's never a downside to that," Spence said.

Another factor potentially working in the Democratic nominee's favor, whether it's Newsom or someone else, is California's changing electorate.

Just 31 percent of registered California voters are Republicans, while nearly 45 percent are Democrats and 20 percent are independents. That means it's important for Republicans to reach independent voters, who tend to be more supportive of gay marriage than California as a whole.

A Field Poll survey in March found that nonpartisans favored gay marriage by 55 percent to 42 percent, while voters overall were evenly split on the issue.

Newsom is taking a moderate approach to the Supreme Court ruling that upheld Proposition 8. In the days after the decision, he appeared in one-on-one television interviews rather than at gay marriage rallies, as he has before.

A videotaped clip of his impassioned exclamation in 2004 that the door was open to gay marriage - "Whether you like it or not" - became a focal point of last year's anti-gay marriage campaign.

"I'll never say that again. I learned my lesson," Newsom told the town hall crowd in Fresno. "I've got to be more humble."

Caption: San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom campaigns at Halo Lounge in Miami Beach in April 2009. Photo by STEVE ROTHAUS / Miami Herald Staff

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