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The influx of young, hip voters who accept social diversity accounts for a shift in California voter sentiment favoring gay marriage for the first time in three decades, a local political analyst said Wednesday.

"It's a generational change," said David McCuan, a Sonoma State University associate professor of political science.

And it sets California apart from most of the country, where firm lines have been drawn against same-sex marriages, unions and partnerships in all but 10 states.

California is "dramatically different" on the issue, McCuan said.

A Field Poll finding that Californians approve of same-sex marriage by a 51 percent to 42 percent margin confirms a shift that McCuan said has been growing since 2000, when state voters approved Proposition 22, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, by a 61 percent majority.

The state Supreme Court struck down the proposition two weeks ago, but the issue remains in flux with a proposed state constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage expected to qualify for the November ballot.

The Field Poll results showed the amendment, which needs only majority approval, will fail in California, McCuan said, but the provocative issue could help Republicans stave off a Democratic landslide in November.

Not so, said Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and former Republican Party policy analyst.

"These (poll) numbers might be soft," Pitney said, contending respondents to such a sensitive issue as gay marriage "may give the response they feel is socially acceptable."

The Field Poll has been tracking the same-sex marriage issue for 30 years, but its latest finding conflict with a Los Angeles Times/KTLA survey released Friday that found 54 percent of registered voters would support the November ballot measure.

Santa Rosa City Councilman John Sawyer, who is gay, said the Field Poll results gave him hope but not assurance that the ballot measure would fail.

"I wouldn't bet the farm on a margin like that," he said.

Beyond California, Pitney said, same-sex marriage will have little traction in November because the issue has been settled. Gay marriage is banned by law in 41 states and by constitutional amendment in 27 states, where it cannot be overturned by legislative action.

Only California and Massachusetts allow gay marriage, and eight others -- Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New Jersey, Washington, Oregon and Hawaii -- allow same-sex civil unions or domestic partnerships.

Conservatives are "victims of their own success," Pitney said, by taking gay marriage out of play in most of the nation. "It's done."

Gay marriage remains a divisive issue, a "battle between the heartland and the coastland," McCuan said, noting gay weddings or unions are allowed only on the West Coast and in a cluster of Northeast states.

Because none of the three potential presidential nominees -- Republican John McCain and Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton -- supports gay marriage, Pitney said it is unlikely to be raised by them as a campaign issue.

But Republicans may use gay marriage as a "get-out-the-vote tool" to woo conservatives and independents to the polls, especially in such battleground states as Michigan and Ohio, McCuan said.

That tactic could trim Democratic gains in the House and Senate, preventing a mega-majority in both houses, he said.

But Pitney contends the impact will be minimal because there are so few competitive races both in Congress and state legislatures.

Field Poll results confirm McCuan's theory that youthful voters made a difference, finding 68 percent of voters under 30 favored same-sex marriage, while fewer than half of those 50 and over did so.

Younger voters are "more accepting," McCuan said, and more likely to have a friend or relative who is gay or lesbian.

California youth "grow up without fear and anxiety" about gays, Sawyer said.

Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo called the latest results a "historic turning point or milestone."

The poll, conducted from May 17 to Monday, just after the state Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage, used a random sample of 1,052 registered voters.

It found nearly twice as many voters approving of same-sex marriage as in 1977, when 28 percent approved and 59 percent disapproved.

In five subsequent polls, the percent favoring gay marriage steadily grew to 30 percent in 1985, 38 percent in 1997, 42 percent in 2003 and 44 percent in both 2004 and 2006. Disapproval fell below 50 percent for the first time this year.

Field Poll results are online at http://field.com/fieldpollonline/subscribers/

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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