By Dan Wiessner
ALBANY, New York (Reuters) - In a push to legalize same-sex marriage, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has emerged as a closed-door strategist, allowing gay rights groups to own the public campaign and also the loss that could result if legislation fails this year.
Cuomo, a Democrat in his first year in office, has vowed to make same-sex marriage a priority in the coming final weeks of the legislative session.
The state-by-state battle over gay marriage has become one of the most contentious U.S. social issues ahead of the 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Colombia allow same-sex marriage, and 10 states allow civil unions.
Needing support from Republican senators on the gay marriage issue, Cuomo has political capital to spend with them after closing a $10 billion budget gap without raising taxes.
The issue may also help Cuomo solidify his liberal base after he alienated many with an austere budget that cut spending on education, healthcare and social programs. He also angered progressives by opposing the extension of an income tax surcharge on the state's wealthiest residents.
Cuomo has stopped short of making himself the public face of the campaign, instead leaving on-the-ground organizing to groups that have lobbied for marriage equality for years.
He pulled those disparate groups together in closed-door sessions at the Capitol, and they came out forming an umbrella group called New Yorkers United for Marriage.
SEND IN THE LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR
In an example of Cuomo's caution, he did not appear at a major rally at the Capitol on Monday, instead sending his lieutenant governor to speak.
"Sending in his top lieutenant is an indication that he has all the interest in the world, but without over-committing," said Bill O'Reilly, a Republican strategist. "He's letting the groups go out front and run the campaign, but the governor has not invested too much capital in it in case it doesn't pass."
A recent Siena poll found 58 percent of New Yorkers support same-sex marriage. Siena pollster Steve Greenberg credited Cuomo with creating a triad of legislative priorities that includes ethics reform and a cap on property tax increases.
"The governor is pursuing an agenda that is popular with the public and individually appeals to virtually every constituency of New York voters," Greenberg said. "He's getting behind marriage equality in a way that does not hurt him politically."
One gay-rights supporter argued that Cuomo deserved more credit as a champion of same-same marriage, saying no other state governor could match his activism.
"The problem we've had in other states is that the best we've gotten from political leaders is lukewarm support. If same-sex marriage happens in New York, it will be because of Governor Cuomo's leadership," said Richard Socarides, president of national gay-rights group Equality Matters.
Same-sex marriage enjoys wide support in the Democrat-dominated Assembly, where it has passed easily in recent years. In the Republican-led Senate, however, only 26 of 62 members have publicly indicated their support.
(Editing by Daniel Trotta and Vicki Allen)