It’s the obvious question now that same-sex marriage in Maine, defeated at the polls less than two years ago, appears headed for the 2012 ballot: What’s changed?

Lots.

Don’t get me wrong. There always will be a significant number of Mainers who feel that marriage between anyone other than a man and a woman is a) a sin, b) a threat to civilization as we know it, c) a plot to turn classrooms into homosexual training camps or d) all of the above and then some.

But as Bob Dylan observed all those years ago, the times they are a changin’.

And as EqualityMaine’s petition-toting proponents hit the streets this week in their all-but-certain effort to put marriage equality back on the ballot, I’m going out on a not-so-shaky limb here and saying their chances of victory have never been better.

“We’re finding that Mainers are changing their minds on this issue — and that’s going to continue through November of 2012,” said Betsy Smith, executive director for EqualityMaine, one day after Secretary of State Charlie Summers approved the language Wednesday for the citizen-initiative petitions.

A progressive pipe dream, you say?

Let’s go to the numbers.

Back in May, Gallup reported that a 53 percent majority of Americans now believe same-sex marriage should come with the same legal rights and protections as marriage between a man and a woman.

That represented a stunning 9-percentage-point increase over the previous year — the largest year-to-year shift since Gallup began tracking the issue in 1996, when a whopping two-thirds of Americans opposed same-sex marriage.

Now let’s go to the map.

Same-sex marriage is now legal in New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Iowa and Washington, D.C.

Not a coast-to-coast sea change, to be sure, but the simple reality is that same-sex marriage now has Maine surrounded. And if that scares the daylights out of you, perhaps you just need to get out more.

Next, let’s compare election cycles.

Back when “An Act To End Discrimination in Civil Marriage and Affirm Religious Freedom” was on the Maine ballot in November of 2009, 300,848 (53 percent) voted to veto the new law allowing same-sex marriage while 267,828 (47 percent) voted to keep it.

That off-year turnout, estimated at just over 55 percent by the secretary of state, was indeed impressive.

But 2012 is a presidential-election year — and if Maine’s whopping 71 percent turnout in 2008 is any indication, about 150,000 more Mainers will vote on same-sex marriage next year than in 2009.

Meaning?

Meaning that off-year elections tend to attract, as EqualityMaine’s Smith correctly puts it, older (read: more conservative) “diehard” voters who dutifully show up whenever there’s an election.

Presidential elections, on the other hand, get much of their bump from younger (read: more liberal) voters who typically complete a ballot only once every four years.

Hence the 33,020-vote majority that vetoed same-sex marriage two years ago, while larger than many expected, is by no means insurmountable.

Toss another 150,000 ballots into the mix and, with the social pendulum steadily swinging toward acceptance of same-sex marriage, this no longer looks like the replay of 2009 that many conservatives so confidently predict.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there’s the looming campaign.

While same-sex marriage’s opponents have been resting on their laurels, EqualityMaine quietly has fanned out all over Maine (particularly those areas where it got trounced in 2009) to hold door-to-door “conversations” with Mainers of every stripe about what marriage means to them.

“When you’re in the middle of a campaign and there are TV ads and all these messages coming at people — especially these negative messages from opponents who are trying to distract voters that marriage is somehow about what’s going to happen in schools — voters begin shutting down,” observed Smith.

Not so when you knock on someone’s door — which EqualityMaine has done some 30,000 times (and counting) in recent months — and gently ask them to hold their deeply rooted religious beliefs up against, say, their gay neighbors or their lesbian niece.

(For a sample interview, go to www.equalitymaine.org.)

“We’ve found that when we have that conversation with Mainers, they come to a much clearer, much better understanding about the love and commitment that same-sex couples share with each other and their families — just as straight couples share with each other and their families,” Smith said. “It taps into their own feelings about what marriage means to them.”

As for the other side’s campaign plans, who knows?

We’ve got Marc Mutty, who temporarily left his position as public affairs director for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland to steer Stand for Marriage Maine to victory in 2009, now saying he has no interest whatsoever in a 2012 encore. Nor is he saying what role the diocese will play — financially or otherwise — this time around.

Mutty was not available for comment Thursday. But in a recent interview with the online American Independent News Network, he hinted that the diocese might have trouble matching the $500,000 or so it funneled into the last campaign.

“This is a very difficult time financially for most people,” Mutty is quoted as telling the network. “The diocese is certainly experiencing difficulties in this economy.”

We’ve also got the National Organization for Marriage, which pumped $1.9 million into the $3.4 million Stand for Marriage Maine campaign two years ago, still embroiled in a court fight with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices over the group’s refusal to say exactly where all that money came from.

(Note to National Organization for Marriage: Mainers tend to get irritated when the guy pushing all their buttons adamantly refuses to come out from behind the curtain.)

Finally, we’ve got the single most effective weapon yielded by Stand for Marriage Maine last time — the ludicrous threat that teachers would be forced to teach same-sex marriage in schools — looking a little tarnished these days.

As Mutty notes in “Question 1,” a soon-to-be-released documentary on the bruising 2009 battle, “That’s not a completely accurate statement and we all know it isn’t, you know?”

Yeah, Mr. Mutty, we know. Come to think of it, it’s yet another reason to do this thing one more time.

Let’s see what a difference the truth makes.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]