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Obama's stance on marriage adds campaign energy from gay donors

In 1988, well-heeled gay activists went to Michael S. Dukakis' Democratic presidential campaign with an offer to raise $1 million for his election effort.

The campaign said no, according to the activists. "They turned us down flat because it was gay money," said longtime gay rights advocate David Mixner.

Less than a quarter-century later, the gay and lesbian community ranks as one of the most important parts of President Obama's campaign finance operation.

The campaign has hosted a large number of events geared toward gay donors, from intimate dinners to extravagant galas. Wealthy gay business executives and philanthropists fill the ranks of Obama's top bundlers. Twenty-one prominent gay individuals and couples raised a total of at least $7.4 million for the president's re-election effort through March.

The once-marginalized constituency is now mainstream, influencing electoral politics from city hall to the White House.

"People just have a better understanding and appreciation about how much impact they can have," said Chuck Wolfe, president of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which works to elect openly gay and lesbian officials. Its budget has increased nearly sixfold in the last decade.

"They're electing state legislators who can deal with marriage issues. They're electing school board members who can talk about bullying," Wolfe said.

Democratic candidates have overwhelmingly benefited from gay and lesbian support, an alliance bolstered by presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney's reiteration last week that he opposes same-sex marriage.

In 1980, organizers in Washington, D.C., started what was then called the Human Rights Campaign Fund to raise money for congressional candidates who supported gay rights.

"Political fundraising in the gay and lesbian community started with AIDS, because our friends were dying and no one was paying attention," said Hilary Rosen, a Washington consultant and early activist. "I don't mean to minimize the energy around marriage or employment discrimination, but it's hard for people to recall now how desperate we were, how many funerals we went to every month. We weren't fundraising for power -- we were fundraising for our lives."

Many politicians were wary of publicly taking money from the gay and lesbian community. Even liberal Democrats in Los Angeles "would send the checks back," Mixner said.

But the Obama campaign has leaned heavily on a stable of high-profile gay and lesbian donors. Financial support from gay and lesbian donors has been so generous -- even before Obama's endorsement of same-sex marriage -- that in New York it has largely made up for the steep drop-off in Wall Street contributions, according to an Obama fundraiser.

Obama's decision to openly support same-sex marriage last week not only invigorated the gay and lesbian community but spurred conservative activists, as well. Still, Romney said he did not think the issue should be used to solicit donations.

"I don't think the matter of marriage is really a fundraising matter either for the president, and certainly is not for me," Romney told Fox News.

The Obama campaign and gay activists reject the suggestion that the president's endorsement of same-sex marriage was tied to fundraising.

Obama's stance triggered a wave of donations to his campaign, fundraisers said, and a clamor of interest in a gay and lesbian gala scheduled for June 6 in Los Angeles. Tickets, expected to bring in millions of dollars, range from $1,250 to $12,500 a person.