MILWAUKEE -- When it comes to statewide votes on gay marriage, the score so far is 20-0 in favor of keeping it a one-man, one-woman institution.
If there's a chance to break the streak on Nov. 7, it might be in Wisconsin, where activists believe that support from unions, college students, and church leaders -- coupled with hoped-for conservative apathy -- could enable them to finally overcome the string of losses.
Among the hopeful are Debbie Knepke and Candice Hackbarth, devoted partners for nine years, raising a 3-year-old daughter and 7-month-old son. They have joined 8,000 other volunteers in a bid to defeat a proposed state constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage and civil unions.
``It makes us mad that the Christian conservatives are so against us," said Knepke, 41. ``If they came into our house, they'd find we're no different from anybody else. We're every single thing they consider good parents to be."
In November, eight states will vote on amendments that would ban gay marriage. Twenty states have already approved such measures. Passage is considered certain in Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Tennessee, but gay-rights strategists believe their side is competitive in Arizona, Colorado, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
Supporters of banning gay marriage remain confident of victory, but optimism is also high in the ranks of Fair Wisconsin, a coalition fighting the proposed amendment since it surfaced in the Legislature in 2004. Large labor unions, many religious leaders, and top Democratic officials -- including Governor Jim Doyle -- have spoken against the measure.
``This could be the state where we beat this thing," said Fair Wisconsin campaign chief Mike Tate. ``I'm not saying it's easy, but we've got the right ingredients on the table."
Tate believes the gay marriage issue -- which helped motivate conservative voters in 2004 -- is no longer fueling the same urgency, possibly diminishing conservative turnout. One reason is recent court rulings in New York and Washington state against same-sex unions, leaving Massachusetts as the only state allowing gay marriage.
The head of the rival campaign, Julaine Appling of Vote Yes for Marriage, said her side may wind up being outspent and out-advertised, but she believes Fair Wisconsin's confidence is misplaced.
``It's a gross misunderstanding of the people of Wisconsin," she said. ``They are good solid stock. They understand that marriage is a good public institution -- it's appropriate to protect it as the union of a man and a woman exclusively."
One of Appling's allies, Marquette University political scientist Christopher Wolfe, believes the amendment will pass, but perhaps narrowly.
``It's certainly a lot closer than the people favoring the amendment would like," said Wolfe, who observed that even at his Roman Catholic school many students oppose the ban.