Two years ago, Washington voters backed a broad guarantee of legal rights for same-sex couples, endorsing the Legislature's passage of a domestic partnership law nicknamed "everything but marriage."

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Two years ago, Washington voters backed a broad guarantee of legal rights for same-sex couples, endorsing the Legislature’s passage of a domestic partnership law nicknamed “everything but marriage.”

Now, gay-marriage backers say the time has come to take that final step. This week, they’ll roll out a campaign to make Washington the seventh state to legalize marriage for lesbian and gay couples.

Leaders of Washington United for Marriage, a coalition of dozens of gay-rights, civil-liberties, labor and religious groups, say they’ll pressure the Legislature to pass a marriage equality law in 2012, and are prepared to defend it from any referendum challenge.

Their effort will begin Monday with a Bellevue news conference, followed by a series of suburban town halls designed to show support for gay marriage outside of liberal Seattle.

A group of Democratic state lawmakers has committed to introducing and advancing the legislation. While expressing confidence about their chances in the state House, backers cautioned they do not have the votes at this point in the state Senate.

“We’re going to push it,” said state Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, a gay lawmaker from the 43rd district and a leader in the marriage effort. “I believe 2012 is the best chance we’ve ever had to make marriage equality a reality.”

But opponents will be ready, too, and they say despite public acceptance of same-sex civil unions, lawmakers may not be willing to change the definition of marriage.

“I’d give them a 50-50 chance,” said state Sen. Dan Swecker, R-Rochester, a leading legislative opponent of gay marriage.

“My goal isn’t to demonize anybody, but my assertion is we’re all better off if we preserve marriage in its traditional form,” Swecker said. “At what point does the institution of one man and one woman become eroded to the point where all kinds of other alternatives exist?”

Swecker added that lawmakers may be unwilling to take up such a controversial subject in the midst of what promises to be another difficult budget.

Democrats hold a 27-22 majority in the state Senate and a 56-42 advantage in the state House. But some conservative Democrats in the state Senate have voted with Republicans when it comes to extending rights to same-sex couples. That means some gay-rights supporters will have to sway some suburban Republicans to their cause. “We cannot win with just Democrats,” Murray said.

Leaders of the newly formed gay-marriage coalition say their strategy will include a simple appeal for all gay and lesbian couples and their supporters to share their personal stories about what marriage equality would mean to them. They’ll begin that effort with town halls this week in Vancouver, Puyallup, Lakewood and Gig Harbor, followed by others across the state.

“That is going to create the conversation we need … so we can win in the Legislature,” said Josh Friedes, Director of Marriage Equality with Equal Rights Washington, one of the group’s organizers.

Murray said the coalition’s commitment to organizing and fundraising was “a big deal,” and one of the final steps he was waiting on to press ahead with a gay-marriage bill in the Legislature.

The marriage-equality campaign is the culmination of decades of slow and steady work for Murray and other backers of rights for gay and lesbian couples. The Washington Legislature first passed a law in 2006 prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, lending and insurance.

Since then, the rights of same-sex couples have been expanded in a series of subsequent laws, culminating in 2009’s “everything but marriage law,” which was upheld by a public vote on Referendum 71 that fall.

Currently, gay marriage is legal in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Iowa and the District of Columbia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

While Washington’s 2012 gay-marriage campaign will target the Legislature, the matter may ultimately wind up on that fall’s ballot — either because a referendum clause is required to get enough legislative votes, or if opponents gather signatures to challenge it.

If that happens, Washington would be in for a nationally watched fight over gay marriage. Such fights haven’t survived a public vote in any state so far, according to gay-rights organizations.

Gay-marriage backers contend they’d have a good shot at winning a public vote. At least two recent polls have shown opposition to gay marriage slipping — including one commissioned by gay-marriage opponents.

But any such campaign would also energize conservatives, Swecker predicted.

“There are folks out there who are kind of oblivious to politics, but this issue rings this really loudly with them,” he said.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner.