But if there's a path to a majority in the 38-member Senate, it's a narrow one. Incumbents are tough to beat. And even if they fall, advocates won't necessarily pick up votes for same-sex marriage; Leo Raptakis, one of two Democrats vying to take on Shibley in the general election, tells the Phoenix he is opposed to gay nuptials.

Gay nuptials supporters, moreover, may be forced to play some defense.

A handful of senators who back same-sex marriage are retiring, after all. And liberals may have to come to the aid of South Kingstown Senator V. Susan Sosnowski, a farmer who won re-election by only 318 votes two years ago.


IN THE CHAMBER

Even if gay marriage advocates fare reasonably well in the elections, they will almost certainly face a Senate leadership opposed to same-sex nuptials and a solid bloc of anti-gay marriage votes in the full chamber.

Winning under those circumstances will be difficult. But advocates have sketched the outlines of a plan. First: win the House by a sizable margin — and with minimal backlash from the public.

Indeed, if same-sex marriage advocates can begin to peel the "divisive" tag off the issue — if they can demonstrate, in the House, that a "yes" vote comes at limited political cost — that could help make the case in the Senate.

Senator Josh Miller, a Cranston Democrat who recently won passage of a bill decriminalizing possession of a small amount of marijuana, says a key to his unexpected victory was demonstrating that his "controversial" idea was not that controversial after all — not with the public, or even with a relatively muted law enforcement community.

The difference, of course, is that the Catholic Church wasn't fighting decriminalization. Providence Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, if history is any guide, will be lobbying lawmakers, making loud statements of opposition, and mobilizing the faithful. And with the media playing up the conflict, it will be hard to convince legislators that they don't have to worry about the consequences of a vote for same-sex nuptials.

The key for gay marriage advocates, then, will be mobilizing supporters and creating a sense of momentum in the Senate chamber itself. Listen closely, and the politicians themselves will tell you as much.

Senator Paul Jabour, a Providence Democrat who supported civil unions legislation last year but tells the Phoenix he's "not yet there" on same-sex marriage, says he will keep an "open mind" on the issue, with an eye to where his constituents are and where the chamber itself is moving.

Gay marriage proponents, if they've claimed even a couple of high-profile upsets in the fall elections, might be able to add a gentle threat to the calculus: we'd hate to do to you what we did to Senator McCaffrey.

Whatever the approach, it is only by persuading the persuadable senators — and building a pro-gay marriage majority in the chamber — that supporters can hope to force Senate President Paiva Weed into calling a vote.

And she can be forced, advocates insist.

"She's a politician," says retiring Senator Rhoda Perry, a Providence Democrat who has sponsored gay marriage legislation. "If the numbers are there, she's going to do it."

Or will she?

The focus, until now, has been on Speaker Fox and the legacy he'd like to leave. But the real question is: what kind of legacy does Paiva Weed want to build?

Does she want to be remembered as the principled defender of traditional marriage or as a leader who stepped aside, despite her own reservations, to let history make its jagged march to progress?

We'll know in a few months.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at  dscharfenberg@phx.com. Follow him on Twitter @d_scharfenberg.

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