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In North Carolina gay marriage vote, it's Bill Clinton versus Billy Graham

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President Bill Clinton and evangelist Billy Graham have lent their voices to opposite sides of North Carolina's gay marriage debate. Here, they are shown together during Graham's Crusade at Flushing Meadows Corona Park June 25, 2005 in Queens, New York.

 

As North Carolina prepares to vote on a controversial amendment to the state constitution that would define marriage as between a man and a woman, both sides are making their final push, including enlisting high-profile backers -- such as former President Bill Clinton and evangelist Billy Graham -- to their cause.

The amendment, also known as Amendment One, would make marriage the only domestic legal union that would be valid in the state. Opponents say the measure is unnecessary since North Carolina already has a statute in place banning gay marriage, and it could jeopardize domestic violence protections for women and affect health benefits for domestic partners. But backers say those fears are overblown.


Voters head to the polls on Tuesday to cast their ballot on the amendment and candidates races in the 2012 primary, but 508,000 people already have participated through absentee ballot, according to the State Board of Elections. That record turnout surpassed even the 2008 primary, which included Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on the ballot, according to Democracy North Carolina.

On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of North Carolina homes received an audio recording of Clinton encouraging people to vote against the amendment. In it, he raised the health care and domestic violence concerns, and also said it could hinder efforts to lure new business to the state.

"So the real effect of the law is not to keep the traditional definition of marriage, you’ve already done that," Clinton says in the recording. "The real effect of the law will be to hurt families and drive away jobs.  North Carolina can do better."
 
“Somebody like Bill Clinton doesn’t just come out on anything and speak against it,” Jeremy Kennedy, campaign manager of Protect All NC Families, which is against the amendment, told msnbc.com on Monday. “His office looked at this for a very long time before they decided they even wanted to get involved.”
 
President Barack Obama’s campaign office in North Carolina has released a statement saying he opposes the amendment, too, Kennedy said.

On the pro-amendment side, Billy Graham and former Republican presidential candidate and House Speaker Newt Gingrich have given their support.

"At 93, I never thought we would have to debate the definition of marriage,” Graham said in a full-page ad that was to run in 14 North Carolina newspapers. “The Bible is clear -- God’s definition of marriage is between a man and a woman. I want to urge my fellow North Carolinians to vote for the marriage amendment on Tuesday, May 8. God bless you as you vote.”

Rachel Lee, a spokeswoman for pro-amendment Vote For Marriage NC said his endorsement was exciting, noting, “He rarely speaks on political issues but he did offer support.”

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She also said they have more than 6,000 churches, a number of policy organizations and state civic groups in their corner.

Of Clinton’s robocalls and Vice President Joe Biden’s comments on Sunday backing gay marriage, she said: “They certainly have a right to their opinion. However, I would say that they are misguided as to what they claim the consequences of this amendment would be. This amendment is very simple and straightforward. It preserves marriage between one man and one woman in our state constitution. It will in no way impact on domestic violence protections, child custody or end of life desires. So these claims brought on by the other side are simply false.”

John Dinan, a professor of political science at Wake Forest University, said the issue has really "polarized the state," with city councils and county commissions taking a stance for or against the initiative. 

“We’re in the midst of a serious campaign that has all the trappings of … a national campaign,” he told msnbc.com, referring to all the attention from outside groups and national figures.

If the North Carolina amendment passes, the state would join 30 others that have passed similar amendments. Recent polling by Public Policy Polling, a group that works for Democratic candidates and progressive causes, finds the amendment has the support of 55 percent of the state's voters, with 39 percent against.

"Opponents of the amendment had an uphill battle in convincing voters that it was anything other than a referendum on gay marriage, even though it does go a lot further than that," said the firm, which has done some private polling for the anti-amendment campaign but whose public polling on the issue isn't sponsored by anyone.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan told a Morning Joe panel that he agreed with Vice President Joe Biden's stance on same-sex marriage. That was the first time Duncan announced his views publically. Duncan also talked about Teacher Appreciation Week and explained the government should keep interest rates on student loans down because going to college remains "an important part of the American dream."

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