Minnesota's divisive fight over same-sex marriage is moving to a Capitol showdown.

Supporters of legalization are preparing to roll out House and Senate proposals as early as next month. Legislative leaders who shied away from the issue earlier now are not ruling out a vote on the measure this spring.

The push will kick off with a Summit Avenue fundraiser on Wednesday night. Richard Carlbom, architect of the effort that made Minnesota the first state in the country to defeat a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, will register as a lobbyist at the Capitol this week -- and more are coming. With just weeks to recover from the election, Minnesotans United for All Families is refiring its fundraising and the organizational operation that raised millions of dollars and galvanized tens of thousands of volunteers.

Opponents say this is what they feared all along and are gearing up to fight back.

"The defeat of the marriage amendment was not a mandate to legalize gay marriage," said Chuck Darrell, spokesman for Minnesota for Marriage.

The fight over same-sex marriage is already testing the political skills of DFLers newly in control at the Legislature and shaping up to be the most high-profile, unpredictable and contentious side drama at the Capitol. DFL legislative leaders say they are focused squarely on the budget. But they also face mounting pressure from members and outside groups that want Minnesota to join the nine other states where gays and lesbians can legally wed.

"The energy and excitement around getting this done is overwhelming," said Carlbom, campaign manager for Minnesotans United for All Families. "That is what gives us the biggest boost of confidence."

Carlbom's team is busy drafting language for a bill, which will get a ceremonial rollout at the Capitol in coming weeks.

The goal, Carlbom said, is not merely to repeal a state law defining marriage as the union of only a man and woman, but to "secure the freedom to marry for loving and committed same-sex couples."

Carlbom would not say how much the group expects to raise or how big its lobbying force will be. But, he said, they expect to display the same kind of "disciplined, strategic" effort that marked their political campaign.

Carlbom said he has not counted heads, but a number of DFLers say it is doubtful the measure would pass today. The campaign effort will work at methodically bringing along crucial legislators on board, one by one.

"This is not some fly-by-night operation," Carlbom said. "We are going to be very focused on accomplishing the task in front of us."

Without strong majorities in either house, DFLers won't have many votes to spare.

Minnesota for Marriage believes it can persuade a critical bloc of rural voters to stand fast against the bill.

If rural legislators begin leaning toward legalization, Darrell said, "they will have some serious explaining to do to the folks back home."

Words of caution

Sen. Warren Limmer, who led the effort to put the marriage amendment on the ballot, said the other side is misreading the election results.

"They should be cautious to try and understand the will of the public on this," said Limmer, R-Maple Grove. "Many just didn't want it in the Constitution, but I would not read that as support for same-sex marriage."

Carlbom said legislators should remember that voters in 55 percent of legislative districts opted to defeat the marriage ban.

Privately, some same-sex marriage supporters are wary about pushing the issue before Minnesotans are ready, and of possibly derailing the efforts of new legislative leaders focused on budget issues and erecting a lasting legacy of DFL control.

Carlbom would not discuss his group's desired time frame for voting on the measure. But state Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, said the best time would be once the House and Senate pass draft budgets and a small group of negotiators begin confereeing a final bill. That could mean a vote on legalizing same-sex marriage around mid-April.

"I definitely think this needs to be done this year," Kahn said. "But you do have to get people used to the idea. This is a justice issue, not a social issue."

Legislators could be considering the legalization of same-sex marriage as the U.S. Supreme Court weighs several marriage-related measures, including a California marriage amendment similar to the one Minnesotans rejected.

In recent weeks, legislative leaders have become less resistant to the idea of voting on same-sex marriage this year.

"The budget is first...but I wouldn't rule it out," said House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis.

Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044