By Mark Egan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - President Barack Obama has delivered important political victories for gays but is unlikely to push his support for gay rights much further before the 2012 election in case he alienates independent voters.
Gay leaders will likely give Obama high marks at a fundraiser in New York on Thursday for pushing through issues like winning gays the right to serve openly in the military.
Yet calls for the White House to back gay marriage and strengthen federal anti-discrimination protection will probably go unheeded as Obama treads carefully in the run-up to next November's election.
"The conundrum Obama faces is keeping this essential core constituency while not going overboard and alienating the high-intensity opponents of that constituency," said pollster John Zogby of IBOPE Zogby International. "His challenge is to continue to play it cool and not to go overboard."
Independent voters, seen as less likely to back gay causes, will be crucial in winning closely contested states such as Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Florida, Indiana and Wisconsin.
With the economy in trouble, the election is shaping up as a tighter race for Obama than his 2008 victory and he must keep key voting groups on board.
Evangelicals mostly vote Republican, but Obama took 30 percent of their votes in 2008 and he cannot afford to lose them, Zogby said. African Americans voted 95 percent for Obama in 2008 and heavily oppose gay marriage, he said.
Among Latinos, which Obama won in 2008, 40 percent call themselves social conservatives.
By contrast, the gay vote is small although influential. A CNN exit poll from 2008 showed 4 percent of voters were gay, lesbian or bisexual and 70 percent of them voted for Obama. Another reckoning puts gays at 7 percent of voters.
Boston University political science department chair Professor Graham Wilson said Obama will want to keep his gay constituencies sweet because they have high incomes, making them a potentially strong fundraising group.
"So long as Obama maintains his reasonably OK record on gay issues and Republicans continue to be identified with fairly aggressive anti-gay sentiments, there is not much doubt as to where the gay vote goes," Wilson said.
GAY RIGHTS ADVANCES
Many in the gay community praise Obama for ending the "don't ask don't tell" policy banning gays from openly serving in the military and for instructing the Justice Department to stop defending a law banning federal recognition of same-sex unions.
But many are annoyed that he has not backed gay marriage, seeing his "evolving" position on the issue as a cop-out. They also want sexual orientation added to federal discrimination statutes.
"So far it's a mixed bag," said Richard Socarides, head of the national gay-rights group Equality Matters.
"People believe his heart is in the right place. He's especially attractive when you consider the alternative," he said.
Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod said the president has made "historic progress" on gay issues and that his record stands in stark contrast to what would happen if Republicans were to win in the 2012 presidential election.
"I don't in any way doubt there are those who don't feel like progress has been made fast enough," Axelrod told MSNBC this week. "There is going to be a fundamental choice to be made in the next election and I think that choice will be clear to everyone and will be a galvanizing choice."
Politics Professor Ken Sherrill at Hunter College in New York City said Obama has made many small advances in gay rights such as requiring that hospitals taking federal money allow gays the right to visit their partners in hospital.
"The objections to Obama are more questions of the pace of change and the visibility of change," Sherrill said.
But Dan Weiller, of Empire State Pride Agenda which is lobbying this week in Albany for gay marriage in New York state, said gays should understand Obama's pragmatic approach.
"We recognize that for the president there are certain political realities," he said.
Marjorie Hill, chief executive of Gay Men's Health Crisis, America's oldest Gay AIDS service group, said she supported Obama financially in 2008 and will again in 2012.
"Anyone can talk the talk, but walking the walk does take longer," she said. "Being in office for two and a half years, there have been amazing strides."
(Additional reporting by Paula Rogo and Daniel Wiessner, editing by Mohammad Zargham)