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."