Legalizing same-sex marriage is the first priority for legislative leaders in Trenton this session, which they made clear by numbering the bill "1" in both the Assembly and the Senate.

A majority of New Jersey residents support gay marriage, but residents are far more concerned about the sluggish economy and unemployment, polls show.

So why is the Democratic-led Legislature pushing the issue now, when Republican Gov. Christie has said he opposes same-sex marriage and could veto the bill?

Some say it's a political ploy to try to trip up Christie while he's basking in the national limelight as a prominent campaigner for presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Others say Democrats are waving the gay-marriage flag to draw campaign cash and enthuse supporters for 2012.

"There's one reason why they're putting this bill forward: They want to raise money on it," said Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage and has an office in Princeton. "They want to energize their base. That's why they're doing it."

Leading the debate is Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), a recent convert to legislative action for same-sex marriage. He says he regrets not supporting the measure when it went before the Senate in 2010. It failed by a vote of 20-14, with five senators, including Sweeney, abstaining.

Sweeney is considering a run for U.S. Senate in 2014, leading some pundits to question whether his change of heart is politically motivated.

But Steven Goldstein, chairman of the gay-rights organization Garden State Equality, takes Sweeney at his word.

"I understand cynicism in politics, but my God, can't anyone do the good and correct thing without being second-guessed?" he said.

Goldstein called Sweeney a civil rights leader and a new friend. He said he would be honored to have Sweeney in his wedding party if the state legalized gay marriage. Sweeney did not immediately respond to the invitation.

New Jersey may simply be following a national trend. Last summer New York became the sixth state to legalize same-sex marriage, and two more states have said they would consider doing so this year.

"I think New Jersey is being shamed by current events," said Hayley Gorenberg, deputy legal director of Lambda Legal, established in 1973 to fight for gay rights.

Pennsylvania does not allow civil unions or gay marriage.

As far as political fund-raising goes, it seems Republicans also can benefit from courting the gay community.

Four Republican New York state senators who broke with their party to help pass that state's bill in July have raised as much as $447,000 in the six months since, much of it from gay-rights advocates across the nation, according to the New York Times.

In 2009, Garden State Equality's political action committee contributed $24,575 to legislative candidates, according to state campaign-finance filings. But it spent only $500 last year, according to reports.

Goldstein said the group was saving for 2012. He took Brown's comment about using the issue to energize the base as a compliment.

"He's acknowledging the power of the community," Goldstein said, adding that his organization had 85,000 members. "Without question, donors on our side of the issue would be motivated."

Nationally, gay-rights advocates have won significant policy changes under President Obama's administration, including Obama's decision last February to stop enforcing the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 federal law banning same-sex marriage.

Still, some have chastised Obama for not publicly backing same-sex marriage.

Instead, Obama has allowed surrogates to take the lead. Former Rep. Patrick Murphy (D., Pa.) spearheaded a push in Congress in 2009 to repeal a policy that forbade openly gay service members from military duty. The "don't ask, don't tell" policy was abolished last September.

"It's obvious to most people inside politics where he stands," Goldstein said. "It's just a matter of the timing. My impression of the president is that he does everything in a very methodical matter, step by step by step."

When Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex) announced that they would introduce same-sex marriage bills in both chambers, the state's seven Democratic U.S. House members and two Democratic senators immediately voiced support. Back in 1996, both senators, Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez (then a member of the House), voted in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Democrats could be raising the issue to excite young voters, who favored Obama in droves in 2008, said David Redlawsk, a political science professor at Rutgers University and director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling.

In New Jersey, 7 of 10 of those under 30 support gay marriage, according to an Eagleton poll conducted in October. A Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday said 52 percent of all state residents supported gay marriage, while 42 percent opposed it.

Democrats say they want to move quickly on the bill, and the Senate Judiciary Committee is to take it up Tuesday. The bill is expected to pass the Assembly, and Sweeney says he is confident he has enough support in the Senate.

"It's a civil rights issue," he said.

Democrats hold a 23-16 majority in the Senate, with one seat open. Sweeney said he was confident he had 24 or 25 votes, enough to pass the bill.

But that would be short of the two-thirds vote needed to override a gubernatorial veto.

Sen. Jim Beach (D., Camden), who abstained last time, has said he will support the bill. Republican Sen. Jennifer Beck of Monmouth, who voted no in 2010, said she had changed her mind, and Sen. Diane Allen (R., Burlington), who missed the vote in 2010 during cancer treatment, said she was "leaning towards it."

But Sweeney won't have every Democratic vote.

Six Democrats voted against gay marriage in 2010, including Sen. Jeff Van Drew of Cape May. His vote won't change, he said.

"I sincerely believe that we do need to protect every individual's civil liberties, but I also believe that marriage, throughout all recorded history, has been between a man and a woman," Van Drew said. Four of the others who voted no did not return calls for comment. The fifth is no longer in the Senate.

Van Drew would put the issue to voters, a suggestion Sweeney rejected. "You don't put civil rights on the ballot," he said. "If that was the case, half of the American minority communities would never have the rights that they have today."

Brown says he thinks Sweeney is bluffing.

"In the 2009 attempt, they said the same thing: 'We have the votes!' " Brown said. "They've picked up Sweeney, but they don't have the votes right now. And and if they do vote on this, we fully expect Gov. Christie to veto it."

In a radio interview on New Jersey 101.5 Thursday, Christie said he would not "prejudge" the measure and indicated he would support strengthening the civil-union law.

Sweeney hopes the governor, who typically holds great sway over how Republican lawmakers vote, will tell members to "vote their conscience," which Sweeney says he believes could give him the votes needed.

The governor "doesn't have to sign it; he can let it come into law," Sweeney said.

The Republican Senate caucus has not taken a position. "It's a personal decision for every member of the caucus," spokesman Adam Bauer said.

Goldstein says he trusts Sweeney is shrewd enough to pick a winning battle: "Timing is everything. I think Sen. Sweeney sees an injustice and he believes he has the votes."