Steven Goldstein was in his element.

As a line of same-sex marriage advocates stretched out the door of a spacious Statehouse committee room, the high-energy Goldstein, in a navy suit and white yarmulke, was inside, stage-managing the scene before a public vote and working political levers for his cause.

One moment he stood near a table of reporters, chatting as he punched away at his BlackBerry; then he buzzed over to a spot among key Senate aides before darting to sit in the audience.

He had arranged for hundreds of supporters to descend on Trenton before a first-ever committee vote on same-sex marriage in New Jersey. He got them to arrive early and save the best seats for clergy backing his cause. He had huge placards put up in the Statehouse hallways. He found parents and couples with compelling stories to tell. And he threatened Democrats who refused to support his side, gambling that pressure would deliver victory.

Goldstein, 47, has been the most vocal, visible, and aggressive leader in the fight to legalize same-sex marriage in New Jersey. Some say he goes too far.

A former Democratic political aide, producer for Oprah Winfrey and television news, and aspiring rabbi, he has cast himself as a hard-edged fighter and used the skills from his various jobs - storytelling, delivering messages, lobbying - to help bring the same-sex marriage movement as far as that Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week.

But Goldstein's strident, some say overbearing, fervor has also hurt his cause among some lawmakers, including gay-rights supporters. As the push for same-sex marriage sputtered with a canceled vote in the full Senate, Goldstein faced a backlash from Democratic lawmakers who had confronted political threats and personal protests.

"He can stage a production like nobody.. . . He's a great ringmaster," said Deborah Howlett, an adviser to Gov. Corzine who has worked to advance the same-sex marriage bill. But, she added, "the thing that's really great about Steven is his passion and his intensity. The thing that's most annoying about Steven is his passion and intensity."

Goldstein's devotion to his cause helped him build up an organization, Garden State Equality, from just a vision in 2004 into a lobbying force with 55,000 members, four offices, a strong fund-raising operation, and the ability to turn out a swarm of volunteers practically on demand.

"Steven is a master organizer," said the Rev. Bruce Davidson, a Lutheran leader who is among the clergy swept up in Goldstein's coalition.

Along with the crowds come individuals - same-sex partners denied vital medical information, for example - who put real, resonant faces on the issue.

Those stories and others went for hours at the hearing Monday, where the committee approved the measure to allow gay men and lesbians to wed their partners.

Goldstein's first official role fighting for gay and lesbian rights in New Jersey was in 2002, when he began working with Lambda Legal, a nonprofit that took a same-sex marriage case to the Supreme Court. In 2004 he formed Garden State Equality and quickly made it the most powerful voice in the state on gay and lesbian issues.

Other groups have fought for gay and lesbian rights, and still do, but Garden State Equality galvanized a community whose advocacy groups were splintered and more focused on providing social help than political muscle, according to Davidson.

Goldstein has been the organization's high-volume spokesman, but his bombast is not always welcome.

Even though Democrats make up the vast majority of his support, last month Goldstein angered some in the party by threatening political retribution - primary challenges in some cases - against same-sex marriage holdouts. Garden State Equality members further riled lawmakers Tuesday night by staging protests outside the homes of at least two senators.

In one case, demonstrators knocked on the doors of neighbors of State Sen. Thomas Kean Jr. (R., Union) and picketed his daughter's fifth-grade recital. Sen. Shirley Turner (D., Mercer) also saw protests outside her home and the threat of a political challenge.

"That has totally repulsed me," she said. "He's turned a lot of people off."

The demonstration at Turner's home was set up by Jenn Harris, Garden State Equality's Central Jersey field organizer. But Goldstein said he did not authorize or coordinate the events. He unequivocally and publicly apologized for the protests, calling them "sickening" and produced an e-mail that showed he "strongly advised" against holding one of the events.

But he did not apologize for fighting hard. He said his drive comes, in large part, from memories of being beaten up as a junior high school student in Queens.

"When you come from a community like the gay community that's been so stepped upon, that's faced so much discrimination, that kind of community longs for somebody who will stick up for them and be tough as nails," he said in an interview.

Goldstein, who moved to New Jersey in 2004, said he felt as though he fit in a state full of loud, aggressive battlers. "Mother Teresa in a kippah I'm not," he said.

Even some of those who have questioned Goldstein's methods have admired his results.

"His personality is intense, but that's brought us a great deal of success," said Steve Mershon, a longtime gay-rights activist from Maplewood. "As one who occasionally felt some tension early on, I've come to realize that he's doing this for all the right causes."

Goldstein takes no salary at Garden State Equality and works, associates say, around the clock. He keeps a pad of paper by his bedside to scribble on when he wakes with a new idea.

Goldstein and several people who know him said he has a softer side outside of politics to balance what he described as a "caricature" of a high-strung organizer.

"I know the public version is in fluorescent colors. The private version of me is more muted," he said.

Even John Tomicki, president of the Coalition to Preserve and Protect Marriage, said Goldstein was talented. He said they have a cordial relationship.

But he added that Goldstein didn't have the votes to get same-sex marriage through the Senate, despite a furious fight to get the measure passed in the lame-duck session.

Born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens, Goldstein graduated from Brandeis University and has advanced degrees in politics from Harvard and in law and journalism from Columbia. He is also studying to become a rabbi at Philadelphia's Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, though he is on leave while campaigning for same-sex marriage.

He worked as an aide in Congress and helped Corzine win his first campaign in the 2000 U.S. Senate primary.

Daniel Gross, Goldstein's partner of 17 years, said Goldstein's fire manifests itself not just in lobbying but also in everyday life. Even while discussing Barry Manilow, for example.

But Gross, a former Goldman Sachs vice president who now invests in renewable and clean energy, said Goldstein's passion turns to "ferocity" when he sees injustice on gay or other issues. Even, he said, while recently helping a stranger deal with uncooperative airport staff.

But while grabbing headlines for his causes, Goldstein has also drawn attention to himself.

Goldstein and Gross' 2002 wedding in Canada - followed by a bus trip to Vermont for a civil union - "was covered around the world," according to Goldstein's Garden State Equality bio.

They were the first same-sex couple to have a wedding announcement published in the New York Times. And when New Jersey's civil-union law went into effect in 2007, they renewed their union in Teaneck at 12:01 a.m., again before a host of media who labeled the ceremony the first in the state.

In private, Goldstein said he was sensitive, thin-skinned about criticism, and constantly questioning his own performance. He most enjoys doting on his younger brother, Richie, who is autistic.

He is particularly touched by criticism from Jewish clergy who oppose same-sex marriage.

"It's very hard to hear from people in his own tradition that say he stands outside from their family," Davidson said. "That hurts him very much."

Goldstein said he identified with his Jewish heritage more than any other label and hoped to complete the five more years of school needed to become a rabbi.

He recalled a line from comedian Lenny Bruce, who, according to Goldstein, said, "So much of being Jewish is being a pain in the butt."

He added, "I so relate to that."

Contact staff writer Jonathan Tamari at 609-989-9016 or jtamari@phillynews.com.