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Obama heads to New York as state legislature stands on brink of legalizing gay marriage

By ERICA WERNER, Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Talk about timing. President Barack Obama is about to hold a gala fundraiser in New York City on Thursday for gay supporters - his first as president - just as the New York state Legislature stands on the brink of legalizing gay marriage.

The coincidence of timing and place will inevitably spotlight the piece of Obama's record that causes greatest consternation for the gay community: his failure to endorse gay marriage.

After getting off to what gay activists viewed as a slow start on their issues, Obama won over many by repealing the ban on gays serving openly in the military and by instructing the Justice Department to stop defending in court a federal law defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

On gay marriage, though, the president has disappointed gay supporters. He endorses civil unions but not marriages for gay and lesbian couples, although he's also said his views on the issue are evolving - as are the country's as a whole.

It doesn't appear, however, that the president's views will evolve fast enough for him to use Thursday night's campaign fundraiser as an opportunity to embrace gay marriage. White House officials say not to expect any new stance from Obama at the event, a star-studded gala with as many as 600 guests paying up to $35,800 each at the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers.

Given the setting, though, the president will have little choice but to address the action by the New York Legislature in some way, and his words are certain to be carefully parsed, given the evolution and nuances of his stance. He'll be addressing a roomful of supporters described by the Democratic National Committee as "allies of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community" - his first fundraiser geared specifically toward the gay community.

Activists hope that the prospect of momentous action by the Legislature to make New York the sixth and by far largest state to legalize same-sex marriage will create enough pressure to move the president closer to an endorsement of gay marriage.

"I do not think that he is going to articulate a new position on Thursday, but I do think that the timing of what we think will be a big win in New York ... does up the pressure on him to do something and might just create enough of a political magic moment to bring about a surprise," said Richard Socarides, head of the advocacy group EqualityMatters and a longtime gay rights advocate who advised President Bill Clinton.

If Obama were to endorse gay marriage, it would give a jolt of enthusiasm to his progressive base and perhaps unlock additional fundraising dollars from the well-heeled gay community. It's not clear it would get him too many additional votes in 2012, though, since the Republican field's general opposition to gay rights gives activists no alternative to Obama.

At the same time, supporting gay marriage could alienate some religious voters the politically cautious White House might still hope to win over for Obama's re-election campaign.

The White House, though, says the only question is the president's own evolution on the issue, the timing and pace of which are known only to him.

Obama has said decisions on marriage should be left up to the states and has indicated support in the past for states allowing gay people to marry. As a presidential candidate, he even went so far as to congratulate gay couples in California who married during the short period gay marriage was legal in that state before voters shut it down.

The president also signed a questionnaire in 1996 as a candidate for Illinois state Senate saying he supported gay marriage, something the White House hasn't fully explained.

In a December news conference where he made his most recent public comments on gay marriage, Obama talked about having friends in gay and lesbian relationships.

"My feelings about this are constantly evolving. I struggle with this," he said. "My baseline is a strong civil union that provides them the protections and the legal rights that married couples have. And I think that's the right thing to do. But I recognize that from their perspective it is not enough, and I think (it) is something that we're going to continue to debate, and I personally am going to continue to wrestle with going forward."

For some gay supporters, Obama's nuanced stance is both a source of frustration, since it smacks of political calculation, and of hope, since most believe he ultimately will end up endorsing gay marriage.

"It's embarrassing to watch almost all of the absurd rhetoric around this issue that's coming out of the White House," said David Mixner, a longtime activist. "You're either for it or you're against it. You've got all the facts. Everybody's given you time to evolve. ... Enough already."

And even as the president deliberates, public sentiment in the country is marching decisively in the direction of supporting gay marriage. Depending on the poll, Americans are now about evenly split or narrowly in favor.

"There's been a noticeable shift the last couple of years," said Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, which in March found 45 percent favoring and 46 percent opposing gay marriage - the first time its survey found an essentially even split instead of majority opposition. "There's still a hard core of intense opposition, but the broader public is becoming more supportive of gay marriage."

That's something the president himself has noted, telling liberal bloggers last October, "It's pretty clear where the trend lines are going."

The question is when and how, and if the president goes there, too.

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