Over the past several days, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has shifted from the sidelines to the center of the debate over a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

After a Baltimore judge ruled last month that the state's gay marriage ban was unconstitutional, the governor said he would review the amendment but was not sure it was necessary. He said he wanted to let the legal appeals process play out.

He issued a statement Monday saying he favored a full floor debate on the issue.

By yesterday, that had changed: He now says he wants voters to decide the issue in the fall - strongly pushing for a ballot measure that observers say could be key to his ability to secure support again from the conservative Democratic voters who were responsible for his victory four years ago.

"A constitutional amendment should be offered, should be put on the ballot, and the people should decide," Ehrlich said at a news conference yesterday.

Ehrlich said his new activism on the issue is a result of actions by Democrats in the House, whom he accused of stifling debate on the issue.

Yesterday morning, supporters of the amendment appeared ready to use a rare procedural move to pull the bill out of a committee and bring it to the House floor.

But Democrats who run the House quickly adjourned the chamber, giving the Judiciary Committee a chance to vote it down later in the day. Republicans were furious, saying House Speaker Michael E. Busch was quashing debate.

But Democrats see a deeper political calculus behind Ehrlich's position. As in the case of his recent pledge for state funding for stem cell research, they accuse him of walking a fine line on divisive social issues to appease his base without scaring off moderates.

"He's trying to have it both ways," said Del. Kumar P. Barve, the House majority leader.

Democrats say the governor is beginning to realize that the gay marriage issue could help him in the November election. After the bill was voted down in the House Judiciary Committee last night, he said on WBAL radio that he'll be "talking about this for the next nine months, 10 months."

"This is a good year for an election," he said. "There is maybe in modern Maryland history no more concrete an example as this particular session as reflecting the profound philosophical difference between the parties today."

"When I'm talking about the parties, I'm talking about the leadership," he added. "I don't believe for a minute that the majority of Democrats in the state support gay marriage."

Ehrlich has also begun reminding voters that the next governor will fill three vacancies created by retirements on the Maryland Court of Appeals, which will rule on the gay marriage lawsuit.

A Sun poll in January 2005 found that 50 percent of likely voters opposed civil unions, and 40 percent supported them.

Assuming that a solid majority of the state opposes gay marriage, it makes sense that Ehrlich has become more active on the issue, said James Gimpel, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"He's probably discovered that people who favor gay marriage are in a minority position, even in a state as liberal as Maryland," Gimpel said. "If it does get on the ballot, it gives Bob Ehrlich another very important issue to campaign on."

Even if it doesn't get on the ballot, Gimpel said, Ehrlich could use it as the focal point of a campaign against obstructionist legislators.

Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, a Democrat who represents a conservative Anne Arundel County district that went heavily for Ehrlich in 2002, said he thinks the swing voters in his district care deeply about supporting traditional marriage and would turn out in high numbers if an amendment were on the ballot.

But he said he sees partisan politics in the way Ehrlich and other Republicans have handled the debate. They have tried to monopolize the issue and keep out Democrats like him who also support an amendment, Jimeno said.

"If the real intent was to get some credibility behind the constitutional amendment and get it passed, they obviously would have been able to reach to some Democrats who very much oppose ... the court decision," Jimeno said.

While calling for an amendment, Ehrlich has distanced himself from the most conservative elements of his party, making overtures instead to those voters who oppose gay marriage but support additional rights for same-sex couples.

Ehrlich said he supports legislation that would give same-sex and other unmarried couples the ability to make medical decisions for one another.

"I live in the real world," Ehrlich said. "We have not just been players but leading the debate ... on bundles of rights that should be attached to non-married and non-traditional relationships."

Equality Maryland Executive Director Dan Furmansky said Ehrlich's moderate rhetoric is hollow. Ehrlich's medical decision-making bill wouldn't guarantee same-sex couples key rights, such as the ability to ride in an ambulance with each other or to stay past visiting hours in their partners' hospital rooms, he said.

"Anybody who endorses writing discrimination in the constitution ... is certainly not a friend of fairness and justice and the thousands of Maryland families who have a vested interest," Furmansky said.

But political observers say Ehrlich is on more solid footing than his Democratic rivals, who must appeal to the majority that opposes gay marriage without alienating the liberal base that supports it.

Neither of Ehrlich's prospective opponents endorses gay marriage, but they haven't supported a constitutional amendment banning it.

Jody Couser, a spokesman for Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, said he opposes same-sex marriage but "supports civil unions and will fight for equal rights for every Marylander, including same-sex couples."

Jonathan Epstein, the campaign manager for Mayor Martin O'Malley, said the mayor believes marriage is between a man and a woman but that O'Malley favors civil unions and "opposes discrimination of any kind and believes in equal rights, protections and responsibilities for all Marylanders."

The constitutional amendment Republicans offered would outlaw civil unions.

Carol L. Hirschburg, a Republican consultant from Owings Mills, said either Duncan or O'Malley would have a hard time with his liberal base if a constitutional amendment appeared on the November ballot.

"He would have to walk a very fine line here," Hirschburg said. "It's much wider for the governor because none of those people are apt to vote for him, let alone enthusiastically support him. And this is an election where each candidate, whether it's Duncan or O'Malley or the governor, is going to have to have the very enthusiastic support of his base."

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