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NORTHFIELD - Rural Minnesota is likely to be the deciding ground in November for the intense campaign over a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
Activists on both sides are aware that voters away from major population centers have played the crucial role in the outcomes of similar ballot initiatives in other states, and are deploying their resources to all points of Minnesota.
Minnesotans United For All Families, the group opposing the amendment, has deployed paid staffers across the state, with offices in Duluth, Rochester and soon Mankato.
Meanwhile, amendment supporters are engaging in a methodical outreach in rural areas, particularly toward churches and socially conservative groups. They say they already have pinpointed 65,000 strong supporters.
In Northfield, retired music teacher Garda Kahn staffed one of the new outposts, at a makeshift phone center in a neighborhood church.
"Oh, you are wonderful!" Kahn gushed to a voter on the other end of the phone line who'd just promised to oppose the amendment. "You are just wonderful."
About 90 miles to the northwest, the Rev. Jeff Evans was in Hutchinson, hosting a meeting with religious leaders being recruited to help pass the amendment.
"This is an issue that is bringing together a great number of strands of the faith community," said Evans, the head of pastor outreach for Minnesota for Marriage, a pro-amendment group.
Voting on similar amendments in other states have shown a stark, and decisive, urban-rural contrast. Generally, voters in more diverse and youthful urban areas opposed the amendments, while more conservative rural residents strongly favored them. In North Carolina, for example, voters rejected the amendment in only eight of 100 counties; most were either urban areas, like Raleigh and Charlotte, or university towns, like Asheville or Chapel Hill.
The script has played out in similar fashion across 30 states, with gay marriage bans passing in an unbroken string from California to Oregon to North Carolina thanks to the support of rural areas.
"It's absolutely vital to do well in rural areas," said John Davis, a political consultant from Raleigh, N.C. "Very clearly, there was a vivid rural and urban divide."
Many campaigns in other states have been comparatively brief, but Minnesota's campaign will have lasted nearly two years, allowing an unprecedented push across the state and bold efforts from both camps to court voters in sometimes surprising pockets.
The fault lines on the amendment may defy expectations. Minnesota for Marriage, the lead group backing the amendment, is expecting to win a sizable share of the union vote, for instance, particularly in the DFL-leaning Iron Range.
In 2008, when California voters adopted a similar measure, union households approved it by 56 percent.
Amendment supporters are hoping to tap a conservative social streak that has long run through the Iron Range, even as voters there reliably sent Democrats to the Legislature and overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama for president. Many residents are proud union members but strongly oppose abortion, fiercely defend gun rights and are queasy about same-sex marriage.
Jim Tuomala of Babbitt is a union equipment operator at a local mine who staunchly opposes same-sex marriage.
"Up here in this area, it's largely Democrats and unions," said Tuomala, who comes from a family of Democrats but switched to the GOP. "But don't let that fool you, they are conservative Democrats."
Amendment supporters are hoping the fall presidential campaign will work in their favor, even in the voter outreach work done by Democrats. The groups Democrats must mobilize for the fall election -- union members, Hispanics and African-Americans -- have supported amendments to ban gay marriage in other states.
"The harder they work to get out the vote for Obama, the better it is for the marriage amendment," said Chuck Darrell, a spokesman for Minnesota for Marriage. "This is not a Republican and Democratic issue as much as people say it is."
Amendment opponents, for their part, are working just as hard to convert areas that have historically been more conservative, like rural communities where similar campaigns in other states lacked the resources or time to make their case.
Minnesotans United is launching a massive effort to recruit faith leaders across the state who oppose the marriage amendment, a group no opposition campaign in other states engaged to the same degree. Clergy members are being encouraged to preach on the issue and rally their congregations to defeat the measure.
"We are not going to cede the religious vote again," said Kate Brickman, spokeswoman for Minnesotans United.
Amendment critics are quietly retooling their message in hopes of making it more appealing.
In the past, campaigns against marriage amendments used terms like "marriage equality," or invoked the civil rights movement -- and all 30 times they lost. They have come to believe "equality" didn't connect with voters. African-Americans often resented the use of "civil rights," saying gays and lesbians were hijacking a movement that had different roots.
Now the entire campaign -- even the phone banks -- focus on "personal stories about how this amendment would hurt us and those in our lives," Brickman said.
The new message is personal freedom -- one already battle tested by many popular Republican candidates.
In a recent fundraising appeal, Minnesotans United campaign manager Richard Carlbom called it a "constitutional amendment that seeks to limit the freedom to marry."
The mayor speaks
Few communities are wrestling with the question harder than Rochester.
For years, the city has had a conservative to moderate pitch. It is also seen as a solid political bellwether, whose voters have fairly reliably picked presidents and U.S. senators.
Mayor Ardell Brede caused something of a stir last January in his State of the City speech, when he said he hoped voters will defeat the amendment.
"My wife and I have been married for 51 years and I don't see any threat to my marriage if we allowed gay marriage," Brede said last week. "I think it's discriminatory if we try to legislate against it."
For at least two decades, Rochester's part-time mayoral position had generally been a nonpolitical post, more ribbon-cutter and community booster than crusader.
Bruce Kaskubar, a local Republican activist, said the mayor overstepped his position on the issue.
"Marriage is a definition and an idea for every culture from the history of the planet, long before the United States," said Kaskubar, who supports the amendment. "It's too bad we even have to have this conversation."
Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044