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Smaller same-sex marriage battleground this year than in 2004

Just one year ago the Gallup poll showed that for the first time a majority of Americans supported recognizing marriages between same-sex couples. In 1996 only 27 percent of those polled said that marriages between same-sex couples ought to be legal, but by last summer support had reached 53 percent.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney refuses to comment on any change in President Obama's personal views on same-sex marriage. NBC's Karen Welker, The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut and Democratic strategist Mo Elleithee discuss.

But a national sample of 1,000 Americans and the political outcomes in particular states don’t always match -- partly because it’s far harder to enact or undo a law than to express an opinion in a poll. And it is on the state level where this battle has been waged over the past decade.

Thirty-eight states have laws which define marriage as solely the union between one man and one woman. President Obama carried 17 of those states in the 2008 election, including Colorado, Ohio, Florida, Nevada and Pennsylvania. Twenty-eight states go further by having state constitutions that limit marriage to unions between a man and a woman.

Allen Breed / AP

Hundreds of people gather behind the state capitol for a rally supporting a constitutional ban on gay marriage April 20 in Raleigh, N.C.

Partly because the ballot battles over marriage were already fought in various states in 2004, 2006 and 2008 – with several states adding laws or constitutional amendments limiting marriage to male-female unions – marriage is not likely to be a defining and motivating issue for voters in most states in November of this year.  But that doesn't mean the issue is vanishing from the political conversation.

This November, in only a few states will voters directly decide the status of marriage.

In Minnesota voters will decide on a proposed constitutional amendment saying that only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid. Minnesota already has a state law limiting marriages to man-woman couples.

Maine voters will be asked to vote on a proposal to legalize same-sex marriages.

Why is the White House afraid to embrace same-sex marriage? Joe Solmonese of the Human Rights Campaign discusses.

And in Washington and in Maryland, the state legislatures have enacted and the governors signed laws allowing same-sex marriages – but voters can block enactment of those laws by referenda that will likely be on the November ballot.

Tuesday provides an early look at sentiment in one battleground state when North Carolina voters decide whether to approve a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution which says: “Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.”

Obama has opposed the amendment: "While the president does not weigh in on every single ballot measure in every state, the record is clear that the President has long opposed divisive and discriminatory efforts to deny rights and benefits to same sex couples," Cameron French, Obama's North Carolina campaign spokesman, said in March.

Paul Guequierre, a spokesperson for the Coalition to Protect All North Carolina Families, the main group rallying opposition to the amendment, said, “One thing that’s important to note is that if this is defeated, nothing as far as the law is concerned, changes. Statutorily speaking, marriage is already defined as between man and a woman and that would not change.”

As in Minnesota, under North Carolina law, same-sex marriages are already banned. So some voters may think the proposed constitutional amendment is redundant and vote against it. “That is one of many very valid reasons to vote ‘no’ on the amendment – and I think a lot of people will vote no for that very reason,” Guequierre said.

He said opponents of the constitutional amendment have not been making the argument that defeating it is a prelude to changing the law so that same-sex couples could legally marry in North Carolina. “We’re looking at the very short term and this is not a conversation about a possible change of law down the road.”

A survey of 534 North Carolina citizens by Elon University in late March found that 29 percent opposed any recognition for same-sex couples, while another 29 percent supported civil unions or partnerships, but not same-same marriages, and 37.5 percent supported full marriage rights for same-sex couples.

North Carolina is likely to be a hotly contested state in this fall’s presidential election, so Tuesday’s outcome will be yet another data point for analysts trying to figure out which way the state might go on Nov. 6.

Referring to Tuesday’s outcome, political scientist Mileah Kromer, assistant director of the Elon University Poll, said “It may force his hand to have to take a strong stance on the gay marriage issue here in the state, or it may guide him on how he wants to talk about it.” If the amendment passes, “he may not be in a political position to want to come out and take a strong stand for gay marriage.”

Gay rights and marriage equality advocates are working hard to defeat the North Carolina amendment. Evan Wolfson, president of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry, said it would “cement discrimination into the state constitution in a way that would deny loving and committed couples in North Carolina the freedom to marry” but also would deny any other family relationships such as domestic partnerships or civil unions.

Reacting to Vice President Joe Biden’s comment Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press supporting same-sex marriages, Wolfson said “I was really struck yesterday with his passion and the very personal way in which he talked about getting to know gay families… and thinking about his own values of fairness and treating others as you would want to be treated… And it is exactly why Freedom to Marry has called on President Obama to join that majority for marriage.” He added, “It’s time for the president to do the same thing” as Biden did in his statement on Sunday.

But Brian Brown, president of the conservative group, the National Organization for Marriage, saw it differently. Biden "just made gay marriage a major issue in the presidential contest in critical swing states whose voters have adopted marriage amendments -- including Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and Nevada," he said. "We will make sure that voters in these states, and others, know that if the Obama/Biden ticket is reelected, our marriage laws will be at grave risk."

As the struggle takes place at the ballot box in North Carolina and other states, the court battle continues over the 1996 federal law signed by President Bill Clinton, the Defense of Marriage Act, which says that no state shall be required to recognize marriages between persons of the same sex performed in other states.

Gay rights advocates are seeking to overturn another section of the law which defines marriage under federal law as “only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.” Last month a federal appeals court in Boston heard arguments in a suit seeking to overturn that section of the law; a ruling is likely in the next three to six months. That case could wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court next year – yet another reminder of the importance of the president’s power to replace justices who die or retire.

The marriage issue could also be fought out in hearings before the Democratic National Committee’s platform committee: Wolfson and other marriage equality advocates are trying to persuade the party to add a marriage equality plank to the platform.

Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney has said he opposes same-sex marriages but also opposes discrimination against anyone based on their sexual orientation.

For gay rights supporters, Romney’s most objectionable statement came in February when he told the CPAC conservative convention, “On my watch (as governor), we fought hard and prevented Massachusetts from becoming the Las Vegas of gay marriage” – a reference to a 2003 ruling by the state’s highest court legalizing same-sex marriages. "When I am president, I will preserve the Defense of Marriage Act and I will fight for a federal amendment defining marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman,” Romney said.