They're a rare breed of politician: Democratic governors who have embraced gay marriage to the point of signing legislation that would make it legal in their states.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley will soon join that club, which already includes Washington's Chris Gregoire, New York's Andrew Cuomo, Maine's John Baldacci and New Hampshire's John Lynch.
Though he hasn't said it, O'Malley may be betting that his support for gay marriage will help him in four years should he run for president, which many political observers in Maryland suspect is a strong possibility. Support for gay marriage has increased across the country in recent years, and according to some polls, most Americans support it.
President Obama is not one of those Americans. He has repeatedly said that his opinion of gay marriage is "evolving," though many gay activists suspect he personally supports it but doesn't want to take a contentious stand on it before Election Day.
"I think the president is doing as best he can and as quickly as he can with an electorate that's broader, frankly, than the state of Maryland and the state of New York," O'Malley said Thursday before the Maryland Senate sent a gay marriage bill to his desk for him to sign.
It's not tough to imagine that O'Malley sees his star rising among national Democrats. On Friday in Washington, where he met with Obama and other governors, O'Malley mocked the Republican presidential candidates in their most recent primary debate.
"How many times did Rick Santorum mention 'jobs' in the debate the other night?" O'Malley asked rhetorically on CNN. "Zippo, zero, nada. Not once did he mention the word 'jobs.'"
Maryland political analysts and gay marriage supporters say they do not think that O'Malley's stance is risky. Maryland is a fairly liberal state that welcomed the marriage bill, and activists predict that it won't be a toxic issue in just a few years. Seven states allow gay marriage, and a handful of others recognize civil unions, which were created in Vermont in 2000.
"I believe that the country is ready for same-sex marriage, and I couldn't be more excited," said Shap Smith, the House speaker in Vermont who helped override a veto in 2009 to allow gay marriage, and who said he had spoken with Maryland's speaker, Michael Busch. "The views of the country are shifting in favor of marriage equality, and I think that those people who are on that side are going to do better in the future."
Eric Uslaner, a politics professor at the University of Maryland, said O'Malley's record on gay marriage, education and the environment could position him well for the national spotlight in a few years. "He's been a pretty successful governor, and this is a time when a lot of states have been mired in deep conflict," Uslaner said. "And he's largely gotten his way with the state legislature."
Gay rights supporters cheered Maryland's move as a precursor of what they say will be a national sensation.
William Lippert, a gay Democratic state representative who led the effort to pass gay marriage in Vermont, compared same-sex marriage laws with the overturning of rules that once prohibited people of different races from marrying.
"It is going to become the new norm," Lippert said. "It is a net plus, politically, in many locations."
The gay marriage debate has crept into Republican politics this year as the candidates for president dwell on social issues to win over conservative voters. Rick Santorum has spoken out against it fervently. Mitt Romney, who was the governor of Massachusetts, a bastion of gay rights, told an annual gathering of conservatives in Washington this month that he stopped his state "from becoming the Las Vegas of gay marriage."
Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, said Friday that while he opposes gay marriage, "at least they're doing it the right way, which is going through voters, giving them a chance to vote and not having a handful of judges arbitrarily impose their will."
The conservative hero Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey who is considered a possible running mate for Romney, drew the national spotlight this month as he vetoed a gay marriage bill, pleasing Republicans on the right wing of their party but potentially alienating independents.
Despite the setback, gay activists have already enjoyed a string of victories this year. A court ruled that California's gay marriage ban was unconstitutional. Washington state passed gay marriage. A judge struck down a critical part of the Defense of Marriage Act.
Stuart Gaffney, the media director of the advocacy group Marriage Equality USA, said that things are changing. In 2004, he said, some blamed the gay marriage movement for hurting John Kerry in the presidential election because it drew conservatives to the polls. But now, said Gaffney, "people are not dodging this issue — in fact, they're embracing it."
"Cleary the writing is on the wall," Gaffney said, "and people are making a decision every day: 'Do I want to be seen as standing on the right side of history or the wrong side of history?'"