Nonetheless, activists and their legislative allies seem determined to make a real push when the General Assembly convenes in January. Speaker of the House Gordon Fox, who is openly gay, has pledged to hold a vote on same-sex marriage and is expected to get it through his chamber. And advocates hope that the spotlight on the Senate will force an unexpected victory there.
It is not an impossibility. Marc Solomon, campaign director for the national Freedom to Marry advocacy group, notes how quickly the terrain is shifting on gay marriage. "What might be conventional wisdom in October 2012," he says, "might not be in February 2013."
Indeed, a recent WPRI-TV poll that had Rhode Islanders favoring same-sex nuptials 56-36 would surely give senators pause.
But public opinion has been on the side of gay marriage for some time now. And opponents worried about what their parish priests might say if they suddenly shifted position would probably be more comfortable with a cop out: putting the matter before voters.
If supporters eventually warm to the idea — perhaps after a failed gay marriage push in the General Assembly next year — there could be an odd consensus on a Smith Hill long divided on this issue.
And supporters, by then, might have a compelling model to emulate.
On May 6, 2009, Maine Governor John Baldacci became the nation's first governor to sign a same-sex marriage bill into law.
It was a big victory for advocates. But the celebration was short-lived.
Opponents collected signatures to put the question on the ballot through a process known as the "people's veto." And in November 2009, just six months after Baldacci signed gay nuptials into law, the voters repealed it on a 53-47 percent vote.
The Republican capture of the state legislature and governor's office in 2010 shut down the possibility of another legislative campaign. But it seemed futile to go that route again, anyway. The question, it was clear, would eventually be decided by the voters.
Gay rights activists, then, made an unprecedented decision to proactively put same-sex nuptials on the ballot.
Matt McTighe, campaign manager for Mainers United for Marriage, the leading pro-gay marriage group in the state, has worked on same-sex nuptials campaigns across the region and has lobbied Congress on the issue.
And he says the biggest difference between the new Maine effort and the 32 losses that preceded it is time — time to raise money, do the research, formulate a message, and talk directly to voters.
Over the last year-and-a-half, McTighe says, Mainers United for Marriage has had one-on-one conversations with 206,000 voters the campaign's modeling deemed undecided or conflicted.
Advocates were determined to take as long as required to lay the groundwork for an effective ballot campaign. But ultimately, they decided they could win in November 2012, aided in no small part by the younger electorate that turns out for a presidential election.
"The proof will be in the pudding, ultimately," McTighe says. "We'll see if this approach is a good one or not on election night." But if same-sex marriage proponents win, he adds, "I think it does change the calculation for every state going forward."
'YOU HURT REAL PEOPLE'
The Maine-Rhode Island parallels are striking. Both are blue-collar, Northeastern states with large Catholic populations.