ST. CLOUD - After a grinding day of meetings, Richard Carlbom was streaking across the prairie in a Ford Fusion stuffed with boxes of blue and orange "Vote No" T-shirts.

Racing toward a speaking engagement at a gay and lesbian Pride festival, he couldn't shake the relentless demands of raising money for the intensifying campaign to defeat the marriage amendment.

"All right, where are we going to find $1 million?" asked Carlbom, looking out the side window. "Where are we going to find it?"

Carlbom, the campaign manager of Minnesotans United for All Families, is at the helm of the largest and most expensive constitutional amendment fight in state history. In the final, frantic weeks of the campaign his team often pulls in $100,000 a day as it strings together an eclectic coalition of supporters and adds new volunteers by the day.

The super-sized campaign, which is dwarfing the efforts of every candidate campaign in the state, is aimed squarely at making Minnesota the first state to defeat an amendment that would effectively ban same-sex marriage. Across the country, 30 states already have such a ban.

"No coalition like this has ever been built anywhere around the country for this amendment," said Ann Kaner-Roth, executive director of Project 515, one of Minnesotans United's founding organizations.

If Carlbom succeeds, his team will have created a road map for defeating the measure elsewhere and built an enormous campaign infrastructure that could become a political force for future state elections, including a possible push for legalizing same-sex marriage.

If the effort falls short, Carlbom will face criticism for burning through $10 million and faring no better than states where opposition was minimal.

At 31, Carlbom's résumé is short. He served as the mayor of St. Joseph while still in his 20s. He was the campaign manager for U.S. Rep. Tim Walz and communications chief for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. He is up against a veteran strategist, Frank Schubert, who has an unbroken record of helping states ban same-sex marriage.

Carlbom "has certainly been successful in rallying his supporters and raising very substantial sums in the process," said Schubert, campaign manager for Minnesota for Marriage, the lead group pushing the measure.

But, he added confidently, "Minnesota voters support marriage as the union of a man and a woman, and no state in the country has ever publicly endorsed gay marriage. It will be a steep climb to convince Minnesota voters to become the first to endorse redefining marriage."

Minnesotans United is fighting a proposed constitutional amendment that would define marriage as only the union of a man and woman. Minnesota law already does that, but amendment supporters say the constitutional language is needed to prevent future courts or legislatures from changing the definition of marriage.

Not just another campaign

Carlbom is relentless about his mission. It is not just another campaign about an amendment, he says. Rather, it's a statewide conversation about what his side calls the "freedom to marry." To that end, they've organized more than 1,000 house parties, built a donor base of more than 40,000 names and pressed supporters to have one-on-one dialogues with those on the other side -- a technique he believes ultimately will be persuasive.

For him, it's personal.

Carlbom came out as gay late in college, setting in motion a series of sometimes anguishing discussions with family and loved ones. For more than a year, he has been engaged to a Twin Cities schoolteacher. They hope to marry one day -- and to have it recognized in Minnesota.

"It is my freedom and the freedom of thousands of Minnesotans that is at stake," Carlbom said.

Stocky, with broad shoulders and a slight paunch, Carlbom has a boyish face and a booming laugh. But when things turn serious, the smile melts quickly, the eyes become distant and he radiates a quiet, attention-demanding intensity.

"He understands that voters get moved through emotion," said Cristine Almeida, board chairwoman of the Minnesotans United for All Families. "He grasped that really naturally."

With so much at stake for the gay and lesbian community, Carlbom acknowledges that he opened himself to criticism in building a campaign leadership team comprised mostly of straight staffers.

The reason, he said, was simple. In other states, anti-marriage-amendment campaigns stocked their ranks with the best gay managers, the best gay fundraisers, the best gay organizers. They all lost.

"I didn't want the best gay team," Carlbom said. "I wanted the best team."

To his surprise, Carlbom found that he needed different skills to manage gay and straight staffers as they deal with the hurtful remarks that can come when deep emotions are tapped and age-old convictions challenged.

"Gay people, we go home and cry," he said. "Straight people get angry. They go home and get fired up for the next day. ... It's an amazing dynamic I didn't expect."

Carlbom beat out more than a dozen candidates for the job.

Two gay and lesbian rights organizations created Minnesotans United last year, right after Republican legislators led the charge to put the measure on the ballot.

The groups wanted a leader who offered the whole package -- the ability to raise millions, manage a diverse staff and build an unrivaled coalition, matching or besting the strongest efforts by the state DFL or GOP parties.

"From the beginning of the campaign, we tried to create a very large and open table for folks who might not agree on much, but do agree on equality issues for same-sex couples," said Kaner-Roth.

Minnesotans United's coalition has fused business leaders, veterans, religious leaders, Democrats and Republicans. In the campaign headquarters, GOP and Democrats who have worked as rivals are now working for the same cause.

"Win or lose, he has done an incredible job of putting together a team that is going to get closer, and I believe, defeat this amendment," said Carl Kuhl, a Republican operative who is a consultant for the campaign and who previously worked for Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer.

Bucking a 30-state trend

The sheer size and reach of the campaign has given rise to private concerns that Carlbom and his team are creating unrealistic expectations. Despite Minnesotans United's year-long campaign and comparatively unlimited financial resources, a recent Star Tribune Minnesota Poll showed the race to be a dead heat. Schubert notes that in virtually all marriage amendment fights to date, supporters turned out in much higher numbers than predicted by the polls.

The size and passion of their campaign, Carlbom said, "is not a function of the work I or our paid staff have done. It is a response from Minnesotans who are standing up for freedom.

"Those who are standing for freedom and their core value of treating others the way you would want to be treated -- to love your neighbor -- will deliver victory and we will defeat this amendment," he said.

After his talk in St. Cloud, Carlbom was back in the car racing back to St. Paul to meet his fiancé for a drink.

Moments before his speech, he got a phone message that an organization had agreed to give $100,000. He skipped dinner to get back on the freeway and call his contact with the group. Carlbom thanked them for the donation and stressed that the money would be crucial in the closing weeks of the campaign.

Without saying another word, he hung up the phone, mashed the accelerator and pointed toward the glimmering city lights in the distance.

Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044