Gov. Corzine has made "marriage equality" for gays and lesbians a prominent piece of his reelection campaign, taking another step in his conversion on the issue and encouraging gay-rights advocates who hope to see same-sex marriage approved in New Jersey this year.

In public speeches and private appearances, Corzine, who as recently as 2006 said he believed marriage should be between a man and a woman, has touted his support of same-sex marriage.

In raising the issue, he has tried to draw a bright-line divide with his Republican opponent, Christopher J. Christie, who has said he would veto a bill allowing gay and lesbian couples to wed.

"We believe that government should allow people the freedom to marry whomever they love," Corzine said in his general-election kickoff speech June 2.

At a gay-pride parade days later in Asbury Park, N.J., Corzine referred to his campaign and told cheering revelers: "Marriage equality is on the ballot. Are you going to help us make it come to pass in New Jersey?"

His campaign posted a video clip online showing the event.

Corzine has focused on blue-state values early in the race, stressing differences between Democrats and Republicans on abortion, gun control, and the environment. That his kickoff speech gave same-sex marriage a prominent place alongside these other issues heartened gay-rights groups.

Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, said the campaign reflected Corzine's "evolving" views and the swiftly shifting politics of the issue.

"New Jersey is undergoing a sea change in how politicians are looking at marriage equality," Goldstein said. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that when a candidate campaigns on an issue, it's not only because he or she believes in the issue, but also because the candidate believes it's a political plus."

Goldstein said momentum had grown recently, especially in the Northeast, after gay marriage became legal in New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, and Iowa. They joined Massachusetts as the only states allowing such unions.

In New Jersey, lawmakers are talking about approving same-sex marriage in the lame-duck session after this year's election but before new officials take office.

Corzine has not always backed the idea.

While running for governor in 2005, he said he held that "the fundamental and traditional view of marriage is between a man and a woman."

He has long said he would sign a same-sex-marriage bill if lawmakers approved it, but did not publicly push the idea until recently.

When the state Supreme Court in 2006 ordered New Jersey to provide equal rights to gay and lesbian couples, Corzine endorsed civil unions as his "preference" for meeting that goal.

In December 2006, he signed the civil-unions bill, calling it a proud moment.

But on same-sex marriage, he said, "That is not where my personal views are because I was brought up in the context of religious beliefs that would define marriage as between a man and a woman," according to a report in the Star-Ledger of Newark.

In December 2008, however, Corzine took a public step toward embracing marriage for gays and lesbians after a state commission, with Goldstein as its vice chair, issued a report saying civil unions failed to provide equal rights. Corzine called the disparity a civil-rights issue that "must be addressed sooner rather than later."

At a Garden State Equality event in February, Corzine went further.

"I'm straight, and I believe in marriage equality," he said.

He said he hoped to sign a bill providing that right in 2009, according to Goldstein and a Corzine aide who confirmed the comment.

Corzine spokesman Robert Corrales repeated that goal on Friday.

But during two weeks of requests, Corzine was not made available for an interview to directly answer questions on the issue or his changing stand.

The video of the Asbury Park gay-pride event provides some clues. In it, Corzine again cited God and "fundamental" beliefs, but now while endorsing same-sex marriage.

"This is fundamental," he said in the clip. "It is about what we are about as a country. What we're about as a people. Human rights, civil rights, are absolutely key. In God's eyes we're all one people, and we need to recognize that and behave that way."

In an e-mail, Goldstein, who comanaged Corzine's U.S. Senate campaign, said, "Jon's current position has been an evolution over a number of years. It's a genuine position of a very genuine, honest man."

Christie has staked out an opposing position.

In a May 12 Republican primary debate, he said he believed that marriage "has to be between one man and one woman and that we should keep it that way in the state of New Jersey."

If a bill legalizing gay marriage came out of the Legislature, Christie said, "it should be vetoed." If the issue went to a public vote, he said, he would campaign against same-sex marriage.

Mike DuHaime, a Christie strategist, said the race would be a referendum on Corzine's performance and the state's levels of unemployment and taxes.

"Almost every other issue is going to be secondary to that in terms of what voters are focused on," DuHaime said.

He said Christie's stances from the debate were unchanged.

In April, New Jerseyans in a Quinnipiac University poll supported gay marriage, 49 percent to 43 percent. But Clay Richards, the poll's assistant director, said the issue was "not a deal-breaker" for many who backed the idea.

"I can't see it moving a lot of votes," he said, adding that the economy and taxes remained the state's top concerns.

Even if Christie wins, he might not have the chance to block same-sex marriage.

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D., Mercer), who has sponsored a bill to allow gay marriage, said it could come up in the lame-duck legislative session after November's election.

"It's probably going to be a reality sooner than later," Gusciora said.

John Tomicki, president of the New Jersey Coalition to Preserve and Protect Marriage, said he believed lawmakers had long planned to approve a bill for "homosexual nuptials" after the election.

"Get us reelected, and then we're going to tell you we'll ram it through when you're not watching," Tomicki said. "That is not the best of American political tradition."

His group wants to put on the ballot a constitutional amendment that would limit marriage to one man and one woman.

"Every poll that we see shows that the governor is in serious difficultly in getting reelected because of the way he has managed the state finances, and to appeal to the gay and lesbian community is sort of sad," Tomicki said.

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