(Patrick Semansky ~ Associated Press)
In Maryland, New Jersey and Washington, bills to legalize same-sex marriage have high-powered support and good chances of passage in the legislature. Gay-marriage opponents in Maryland and Washington would likely react by seeking referendums in November to overturn those laws, while New Jersey's Republican governor, Chris Christie, says he'll veto the bill if it reaches him and prefers that lawmakers OK a referendum so voters can decide.
In all three states, polls suggest voters are closely divided on whether gays should have the right to marry, so there's a chance one could emerge as the first state to support same-sex marriage in a statewide vote.
Maine voters also may have an opportunity to vote for same-sex marriage in November; an announcement by gay-rights activists about a ballot-measure campaign is set for today. Proposed amendments for constitutional bans on gay marriage will be on the ballots in North Carolina on May 8 and in Minnesota on Nov. 6.
In New Hampshire, Republicans who now control the legislature are mulling whether to repeal the 2009 law legalizing same-sex marriage. Their state is one of six with such laws, along with Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont, as well as the District of Columbia.
Added together, the state-level showdowns will likely raise the prominence of the marriage issue in the presidential campaign, even though it's not a topic that the leading candidates tend to broach proactively.
"There's a lot going on," said gay-marriage advocate Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry. "It means that candidates -- whether Romney or Obama -- who hope to avoid the discussion will not be able to."
Three of the remaining Republican presidential contenders, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, have signed a National Organization for Marriage pledge opposing same-sex marriage and endorsing a federal constitutional amendment to ban it. But it's not among the topics prominent in the stump speeches of Romney or Newt Gingrich, the two front-runners.
On the Democratic side, President Barack Obama has taken several steps during his first term that have pleased gay-rights advocates, but says he is still "evolving" in regard to same-sex marriage and isn't ready to endorse it. Some activists hope he will do so before the election, though there's been no strong hint of that from the White House.
"Obama will get asked about it, and you can't straddle both sides of this forever," said Richard Socarides, a former Clinton White House adviser on gay rights. "Clearly he's not going to retreat, so he only has one place to go, and I think he will do it before the election."
Another potential factor: Judgments could be issued during the campaign in one or more of several pending federal court cases about same-sex marriage. Appeals could result in the issue heading toward the Supreme Court, and the presidential candidates would be expected to comment on any major development.
A summary of the latest state-by-state events:
NEW JERSEY: Thanks to a change of heart by Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a gay marriage bill is now seen as having a strong chance of passage in the Democratic-controlled legislature. Christie, a Roman Catholic who has long opposed gay marriage, says he'd veto the bill if it reaches him, but on Tuesday he urged lawmakers to put the issue before voters in a statewide ballot measure.
"Let us have a discussion about this in halls of schools and homes and synagogues and churches and ball fields across New Jersey, and let people decide," Christie said.
Sweeney rejected the suggestion, saying, "Civil rights is not to be placed on the ballot."
MARYLAND: In contrast to Christie, Maryland's Catholic governor -- Democrat Martin O'Malley -- supports gay marriage. Unlike last year, when a marriage bill stalled in the House of Delegates, O'Malley is now making the issue one of his top legislative priorities. He and his allies hope to broaden support among lawmakers and the public by making clear in the new bill that religious freedom will be protected. Public opinion could be crucial, because opponents of gay marriage are expected to seek a referendum in November to overturn a marriage bill if one passes in the legislature.
WASHINGTON: Like O'Malley, Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire has strongly endorsed a pending gay-marriage bill, which received its first legislative hearing this week. Based on public commitments from lawmakers, the bill has enough votes to win passage. However, as in Maryland, opponents are poised to petition for a referendum challenging the law.
NEW HAMPSHIRE: A bill pending in a House committee would repeal the state's same-sex marriage law and replace it with civil unions for any unmarried adults. It would not invalidate the same-sex marriages already legalized since 2009. The fate of the bill is uncertain, facing possible revisions before a vote and a promised veto by Democratic Gov. John Lynch if it does pass. If it gets that far, and lawmakers override a veto, the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union has indicated it would challenge the new law in court.
MAINE: Gay marriage supporters in Maine have spent several months assessing whether they would seek a referendum in November to legalize same-sex marriage. Their decision will be announced Thursday, and national gay-rights leaders believe the campaign will be launched. Maine is the only state in New England that doesn't allow either gay marriage or civil unions. Its lawmakers approved a gay marriage law in 2009, but it was overturned months later by a statewide referendum.
NORTH CAROLINA and MINNESOTA:
Voters in 30 states have approved constitutional amendments aimed at solidifying bans on gay marriage; Minnesota and North Carolina could join those ranks if measures placed on the ballot by Republican-controlled legislatures win approval later this year. Neither Minnesota nor North Carolina allow gay marriage now, but supporters say the amendments are needed to prevent judges or lawmakers from changing that policy in the future. The North Carolina amendment also would prevent the state from recognizing civil unions or domestic partnerships.
In all the showdown states, national advocacy groups are expected to be active on both sides. The Human Rights Campaign, for example, has promised to provide funding, strategic advice and field staff for the various campaigns supporting same-sex marriage.
On the other side, the National Organization for Marriage is vowing a multistate effort, including promises of financial support in the primaries to defeat any Republican lawmakers who support gay marriage in Washington.
Though several major national polls now show that a slight majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, National Organization for Marriage president Brian Brown predicts his side will continue its winning streak and prevail in any state referendums that are held this fall.
"There's a myth that history is on a trajectory moving toward same-sex marriage," Brown said. "There is no such momentum."
Human Rights Campaign: http://www.hrc.org/
National Organization for Marriage: http://bit.ly/14OBri
David Crary can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/CraryAP