CALIFORNIA - A state ballot measure to ban gay marriage in California is gaining momentum, with polls showing almost even odds of it passing after trailing by double digits a month ago.
In June, the state legalized same-sex marriages. The next month, Proposition 8, defining marriage as between a man and a woman, was put on the ballot for November. Initial polling showed that a majority of Californians were likely to vote against Proposition 8. A Sept. 18 poll by the San Francisco-based Field Poll found the measure losing 55% to 38% among likely voters.
But now the measure is favored 48% to 45% among likely voters questioned in an Oct. 17 poll by Survey USA of Verona, N.J. The poll's margin of error, four percentage points, means the results were a statistical tie.
A group leading the fight against the measure, Equality for All, said this week that one of its internal polls shows Proposition 8 leading by four percentage points. The close results of that poll, too, may suggest a dead heat as the Nov. 4 election approaches.
"The outcome will be close because Californians are evenly divided on gay marriage," said Mark Baldassare, chief executive of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California in San Francisco. A new poll by the institute, due out late Wednesday, is expected to show a tight race. The measure needs a simple majority vote to pass.
Proposition 8 was initiated after the state's Supreme Court said in May that a ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, paving the way for the legalization of gay marriage in California starting June 17. Same-sex marriages are also legal in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
The issue has come up in the presidential campaign, with Republican Sen. John McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, suggesting this week that she would support a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage nationwide. The outcome of California's battle could affect whether states move to recognize gay marriages.
Supporters of Proposition 8 have gained ground by capitalizing on their opponents' missteps. They have been running a television ad for several weeks that shows San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom delivering a boisterous response to a throng of supporters after the state Supreme Court ruling. "The door's wide open now. It's going to happen, whether you like it or not," the Democratic mayor says loudly.
"Gavin Newsom has been a great player on our team," said Sonja Eddings Brown, spokeswoman for Protect Marriage California, a group that has been leading the "Yes on 8" campaign.
Pollsters say that fueling the rise in support for Proposition 8 is an advertising blitz heavily bankrolled by the Mormon Church, which suggests, among other things, that if Proposition 8 doesn't pass then schoolchildren will be indoctrinated about gay marriage.
Between 30% and 40% of the $25.5 million in donations raised as of last week by the "Yes" campaign has come from the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, supporters of the measure say. "Yes" campaigners say the Mormons are just one of many religious groups that support the ban.
Officials in San Francisco -- a national pioneer in recognizing gay marriages -- have come out strongly against the Mormon Church's campaign. "This is a blood feud on their part," said Therese Stewart, chief deputy city attorney of San Francisco.
A Mormon Church spokesman said it is acting only as a part of a broad coalition of groups opposed to gay marriage. "The campaign has had the support of over 60,000 individual contributors, the majority of which are not Mormons," Mormon spokesman Michael Purdy said in a statement. Mormon leaders, on the church's official Web site, ask their followers to support the California ballot measure to reinforce church teachings that "marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God."
Proposition 8 opponents are scrambling to turn back the tide. They have raised about $20 million by enlisting powerful allies such as the state teachers and nurses unions. The "No" campaign also is unleashing its own attack ads. "Unfair, Unnecessary, and Wrong," says one new ad, which calls attention to a wave of newspaper, union and other endorsements against the measure.
Proposition 8 draws its heaviest support in Republican strongholds such as the Central Valley and Inland Empire of Southern California, according to recent polls. Its biggest opposition is coming from Democratic bastions such as San Francisco and Los Angeles along the coast.
But two Democratic constituencies -- African-Americans and Latinos -- are leaning toward the ban. Among likely black voters, 58% supported Proposition 8 compared with 38% who opposed it in the most recent Survey USA poll. Among Latinos, 47% supported the proposition while 41% opposed it; white voters were nearly evenly split. The reason, "Yes" officials say, is that church attendance is strong in many minority communities.
As a result, both sides are lobbying to corral votes in minority neighborhoods. Tuesday, for instance, African-American leaders in Oakland and Los Angeles held news conferences opposing the ban. The same day, other African-American leaders in those cities came out in support of Proposition 8.