By CLARKE CANFIELD
PORTLAND, Maine - President Barack Obama's support for gay marriage has emboldened activists and politicians on both sides of the issue, setting off a flurry of political activity in a number of states and serving as a rallying point in others where gay marriage votes are being held this fall.
With the nation divided on gay marriage, Obama's declaration this month - a day after North Carolina voters approved an amendment to the state constitution affirming that marriage may only be a union of a man and a woman - has added a wrinkle in the political debate on a touchy subject.
Obama's stand has put wind in the sails of gay marriage supporters, while providing political fuel to opponents, said Kamy Akhavan, president of ProCon.org, a nonpartisan California-based nonprofit that researches pros and cons on controversial issues.
"It has altered the national discussion to some degree," he said.
Same-sex marriage is now legal in six states and the District of Columbia. Thirty-one states have passed amendments aimed at banning it. The issue is expected to come up in at least four ballot measures this fall:
• Maine's ballot question asks whether gay marriage should be legalized.
• Minnesota is asking whether a ban on gay marriage should be part of the state constitution.
• Maryland and Washington are expected to have ballot measures seeking to overturn same-sex marriage laws that were recently passed by the legislatures.
In Maine, the announcement has invigorated activists who favor and oppose November's statewide referendum seeking to legalize same-sex marriage. The Maine Legislature passed a gay marriage bill in 2009, but it was overturned by 53 percent of the voters in a referendum that fall.
David Farmer, spokesman for Mainers United for Marriage, said Obama's description of his personal evolution on gay marriage illuminates the conversations that supporters are having in door-to-door and phone discussions with residents - talking about their "personal journeys" and people they know who are gay.
"A lot of people who agree with the president got a burst of energy, that feeling of momentum, about the first sitting president of the United States endorsing a cause that they support and are working very hard on," Farmer said.
Obama's words also made referendum opponents realize they have their work cut out for them, said Bob Emrich, chairman of Protect Marriage Maine and pastor of Emmanuel Bible Baptist Church.
"It's deepened people's awareness that this is a major issue that isn't going away and we need to have more people involved in it," Emrich said.
It's not just Maine where Obama's words have energized gay marriage supporters.
In Illinois, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn said he "stands with the president" while announcing his stepped-up support for gay marriage, vowing to work with state legislators to legalize same-sex marriage there without waiting for the courts to act. Illinois currently allows civil unions, which afford couples many of the rights of marriage.
In Rhode Island, which allows civil unions but not gay marriage, Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed an order proclaiming the state will recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere; Chafee, an independent, said Obama's announcement is positive momentum. Maryland's highest court ruled Friday that same-sex couples can divorce in the state even though Maryland does not yet permit gay couples to wed.
Former Nebraska Gov. and Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Democrat who is again running for the Senate, voiced his support for gay marriage this week. And in Minnesota, gay marriage supporters say Obama's position is galvanizing opponents of a proposed constitutional amendment to ban it and should help fundraising efforts.
Obama's announcement has also drawn response from gay marriage opponents.
In Oklahoma, the state Senate recently voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution reaffirming opposition to gay marriage, even though there's a ban already enshrined in state law and the state constitution. Republican Sen. Clark Jolley said he introduced the resolution in direct response to Obama's position.
A Democratic state senator accused Jolley of introducing the resolution because he has "a difficult re-election campaign coming up and needs promotional material for the God and gays section" of a campaign leaflet.
In Colorado, the Republican House speaker accused Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper of "reading straight from President Obama's campaign playbook" in calling for a special legislative session to vote on civil unions a day after Republicans had killed a bill. The resurrected legislation was again killed during a special session this week.
In Minnesota, Minnesotans for Marriage spokesman said Obama's announcement "demonstrates why marriage needs to be protected and put in the state Constitution where politicians can't get at it."
In New Hampshire, the sponsor of a failed bill to repeal gay marriage sent out an email calling Obama "arrogant and out of touch" with his announcement.
Frank Schubert, political director for the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes gay marriage, said Obama's opinion will continue to have ramifications as November's elections close in, particularly for Democrats who don't share his view.
"I think he's scrambled the omelet quite a bit here and made it complicated for Democrats, in swing states in particular, because it puts them in position of having to, sometimes publicly, distance themselves from the president," he said.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Steve LeBlanc in Boston, Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City, Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis, Ivan Moreno in Denver, Rachel La Corte in Olympia, Wash., and Brian Witte in Annapolis, Md.