Four years ago, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom began granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples, he seemed to put the kibosh on any thought of a statewide political career.
After all, that same year California voters approved Proposition 22, a defense-of-marriage initiative, by more than 61 percent. A Field Poll taken in May 2004 showed that Californians disapproved of same-sex marriage by a margin of 50 percent to 44 percent.
Fast forward to 2008, however, and suddenly Mr. Newsom looks politically reborn.
Mr. Newsom, 40, announced last week the formation of an exploratory committee for a 2010 California gubernatorial run, and political strategists agree that his strong identification with the gay-marriage issue should help him in the Democratic primary.
California has been riding a wave of pro-gay-marriage sentiment since the California Supreme Court overturned Proposition 22 in May, and thousands of gay couples have married in the wake of the ruling.
A Field Poll issued shortly after the decision found that, for the first time in more than 30 years of polling, support for gay marriage outweighs opposition. California voters approved of same-sex marriage by a margin of 51 percent to 42 percent.
Poll director Mark DiCamillo called the poll results “a major sociological event in California.”
It´s a shift that could propel Mr. Newsom past a packed Democratic field in the 2010 primary. His supporters point to polling showing the mayor among the early leaders in a field that includes former Attorney General and former Gov. Jerry Brown, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former state Controller Steve Westly.
Republican political analyst Dan Schnur, who is not affiliated with any gubernatorial campaign, said the gay-marriage issue should help the two-term San Francisco mayor in the primary, but the general election is another matter.
Republicans have long succeeded by exploiting the “San Francisco values” label in statewide races, most recently with former Mayor Dianne Feinstein in her gubernatorial run against Pete Wilson in 1990.
Mrs. Feinstein lost that race, then went on to win the U.S. Senate race two years later.
“It could be a double-edged sword in the general election. In the Democratic primary, it´s a huge plus,” Mr. Schnur said. “It allows him to break away from the pack.”
Mr. Newsom took a political risk with his early move to sanction gay marriages, but analysts said a sea change was already in place. The fine print on recent polling shows that the strongest supporters of gay marriage are younger voters, while its staunchest opponents are senior citizens.
Other issues could dog Mr. Newsom, including San Francisco´s status as a sanctuary city for illegal immigrants. The recent escape of Honduran gang members from city authorities could haunt him in the campaign.
Mr. Newsom also was forced to acknowledge an affair with the wife of a campaign aide, and later his struggles with alcohol. Other Democratic candidates have similar liabilities, however, and politicos doubt such personal flaws will register with voters.
Although Mr. Newsom may be best known for his stand on same-sex marriage, he is not a one-dimensional candidate, said Newsom political consultant Eric Jaye.
“He’s certainly very proud of his civil-rights record, but he’s also very proud of his record with the 21st-century economy in San Francisco and his health care program,” said Mr. Jaye. “He’s already talked about those accomplishments around the state of California.”