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A new poll finds most Californians now believe same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. It's the first time the field poll has found the majority who support gay marriage in that state. After this month's California's Supreme Court ruling, same-sex couples can wed starting June 17th. And as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, the success of gay marriage in California may launch the political comeback of San Francisco's straight mayor.
RICHARD GONZALES: Just a few hours after the State Supreme Court issued its ruling, hundreds of gay and lesbian couples gathered under the dome of San Francisco's City Hall to hear a triumphant Gavin Newsom proclaim victory.
Mr. GAVIN NEWSOM (Mayor, San Francisco): It's about human dignity. It's about civil rights. It's about time.
[Soundbite of People Applauding]
Mr. NEWSOM: In California.
GONZALES: It was a sweet moment for the young and photogenic Mayor. Back in 2004 after he okayed marriage licenses to about 4,000 same sex couples, some Democrats accused him of recklessly tying his party to a divisive social issue. And more than a few pundits began writing his political obituary.
Ms. BARBARA O'CONNOR (California State University): I think this is the first step on his comeback as a viable candidate.
GONZALES: Barbara O'Connor teaches politics and the media at Cal State, Sacramento.
Ms. O'CONNOR: And clearly he's proven to be correct in the civil rights nature of the issue. And you have a Supreme Court where six of the seven are Republican appointees and he won. So it's very difficult to describe it as other than a victory.
GONZALES: But that victory could be short-lived if the Supreme Court's decision is trumped by a voter initiative banning gay marriage. Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown believes Newsom would benefit from the exposure he'd get from defending the rights of same-sex couples, win or lose.
Mr. WILLIE BROWN (Former Mayor, San Francisco): If that measure qualifies on the ballot, all 58 counties should be visited by Gavin Newsom. And there will be a constituency in all 58 of those counties. I think it gives him a platform. He gets a chance to talk to people about things more than just same-sex.
GONZALES: Even Republican strategists agree that the state Supreme Court ruling has vaulted Newsom into the forefront of potential Democratic nominees for the California governor's race in 2010. Tom Del Beccaro was a vice chair of the California Republican Party. He says Newsom gambled by championing same-sex marriage.
MR. TOM DEL BECCARO (Vice Chairman, Californian Republican Party): I think when he did do it, it was reckless, because our appointed leaders are sworn in to uphold the constitution and the state's laws not to abrogate them. So that was a big risky move, but then again in a Democrat primary, often that's viewed as leadership.
GONZALES: The new field poll indicates most Californians have come around to Newsom's point of view. For the first time in three decades, the state-wide survey shows a slight majority, 51 percent, now believes same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. Just last week, a Los Angeles Times poll reached exactly the opposite conclusion, 54 percent favored changing the California Constitution to ban gay marriage. Together, the polls show the state is still deeply conflicted. But Republican Strategist Dan Schnur says the numbers indicate a steady, growing acceptance of same-sex marriage.
Mr. DAN SCHNUR (Republican Strategist): If you look at public opinion polling on the issue, it breaks down almost precisely on a generational bias. Older Californians tend to be much more strongly opposed to same-sex marriage than younger Californians, and each successive generation becomes increasingly more supportive of it.
GONZALES: Schnur says voter approval of gay marriage may not reach a tipping point in time for the 2010 general election, but he adds, it appears that on this issue time is on Gavin Newsom's side.
Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco