If voters end up going to the polls this November to decide the fate of Maine’s gay rights law, they won’t see the words “same-sex marriage” on the ballot. But political experts say those words will play a pivotal role in the outcome.

Marv Druker, professor of leadership at Lewiston-Auburn College, expects a close vote in November, much like outcomes in 1998 and 2000, when voters rejected similar laws that would have outlawed discrimination against gays in the areas of jobs, housing and credit.

Even though this November’s potential ballot question would not mention same-sex marriage, it will define the campaign, Druker and others said.

“People who want to preserve the anti-discrimination law could argue that this is about discrimination, and is not the same thing” as same-sex marriage, Druker said. They’ll need to show citizens that what they’re voting on is civil liberties, not gay marriage, he said.

Pollster and Bowdoin College government professor Christian Potholm agreed, saying the Maine Won’t Discriminate campaign will have the tougher job, even if it has more money and clout.

Maine Won’t Discriminate has to show that keeping the anti-discrimination law “won’t lead to gay marriage,” Potholm said, adding that many Mainers don’t want it.

Because of that, this time Michael Heath of the Maine Christian Civic League and Paul Madore of Maine Grassroots Coalition – who are both working with the Coalition for Marriage – have “a more powerful argument than ever before, that this is the first step toward gay marriage,” said Potholm, who said he’s not working for either side.

“The gay rights side has to prove there really is a discrimination problem,” and put emotion into it, he said. “They have to say, ‘Here’s Sally who lives in Etna. She lost her hairdresser job because she was gay.’ They can’t make it in the abstract.” In the last two campaigns “they acted like they were entitled,” Potholm said.

The fact that Gov. John Baldacci and most legislators are on the anti-discrimination side won’t be enough to convince the average voter, Potholm predicted. Mainers have seen gay marriages happen in Massachusetts and San Francisco. “The power of fear, of gay marriage, is much more powerful than what Augusta says,” Potholm said.

Meanwhile, the other side will have to watch its rhetoric, experts said.

During Tuesday’s rally when the Maine Coalition for Marriage turned in its signatures, Penobscot Pastor Buddy Goff warned that the campaign is critical, “that the foundations of the country” are being shaken by attacks on the family, and that God is punishing mankind. “God spoke in the tsunami. Do you know in the tsunami there were no animals killed? It was only people,” Goff said, adding, “God is giving us a message.”

If either side gives those kind of “over the top” messages in their campaigns, “They’ll start to lose credibility,” Druker said. “Both sides need to talk to the average voter in the middle who aren’t sure how to vote, he said.

As the campaigns have been before, both campaigns will be grass-roots battles “for the hearts and minds of Mainers,” said MaryEllen FitzGerald of Critical Insights of Portland.

Her statewide polling shows that older people have more conservative views than younger people on the issue. When it comes to views on same-sex marriage, “it’s a dead heat” among Mainers. People who say marriage should only be between one man and one woman have lived in Maine longer, and are older. “The farther north they live, the more they support” marriage as being between only one man and one woman.

Potholm also does polling, and warned that polls on gay-related issues often aren’t accurate. When people are asked, some give the politically correct answer rather than how they really feel.

He predicted that 40 percent of Mainers favor gay rights, 40 percent oppose, and the remaining 20 percent will “float back and forth” depending on how each campaign frames the issue.

Assuming that the secretary of state certifies the signatures that were turned in last week, voters will decide whether to keep or repeal the gay rights law on Nov. 8. The state has until July 28 to clear the signatures.

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