“Yes on 1” – the Maine campaign to repeal marriage equality – aired its first San Francisco produced ad this week, which was kind of a dud. It was like the first “Yes on 8” ad in California – minus the Gavin Newsom footage. Within 24 hours, the “No on 1” campaign aired a strong rebuttal – in contrast to the 12 days it took “No on 8” to respond. Rather than simply deny the “gay marriage in public schools” charge, the ad accused outsiders of harming kids – and that schools protect “all Maine families,” allowing our side to stay on the offensive. With 53 days to go before the election, a new poll today shows Question 1 narrowly ahead by 48-46. Supporters of marriage equality should realize that every effort will make a difference – and that we now have an opportunity to finally defeat anti-gay bigotry at the ballot box.

Proposition 8 passed last year, because the “No on 8” campaign spent its time reacting to the opposition’s attacks – even though we’ve seen the right make the very same attacks on gay marriage in state after state. There was no excuse for supporters of marriage equality to not have a pre-emptive strategy before the opponents launched their ads, or to be prepared with a response that kept us on message. Instead, we saw “No on 8” flailing throughout the campaign – as attacks began to resonate with swing voters.

Probably the most effective attack we heard was that gay marriage would be “taught” in public schools. But it took “No on 8” twelve days to respond to that charge on the air. When they did, they had an ad with State Superintendent Jack O’Connell – a politician that most voters are not familiar with – who simply said it wasn’t true. All it took was for one class of 1st Graders to attend their lesbian teacher’s wedding (which the SF Chronicle shamefully treated as “front-page news”) for swing voters to believe that it was our side that was lying to them.

My sister was a First Grade teacher for many years, and she made a really good point to me after Proposition 8 passed. Gay marriage may not be “taught” in public schools, but teachers do explain to kids that families are different. Some kids have a mom and dad, some kids have only a mom, some kids may have two sets of moms and dads because the parents are divorced, some families have foster children, and – yes – some kids have two moms or two dads. You don’t have to use the word “gay” or go into any more detail, she explained, because it’s not about “gay marriage” – it’s about respecting diverse families. In other words, by simply denying its existence the “No on 8” campaign fell in a trap.

Now, the “Yes on 1” campaign in Maine has launched the same attack – but we are ready. Less than 24 hours after the opposition’s San Francisco-produced ad hit the airwaves, “No on 1” had their own rebuttal. The ad effectively countered the schools attack for two reasons. First, they had a real teacher (Sherri Gould, who was named Maine’s “Teacher of the Year” in 2005), as opposed to a politician. Second, it framed the issue around protecting “all families” – and Ms. Gould said that in her classroom, “we teach respect and Maine values.” This allowed the “No on 1” campaign to stay on message pro-actively – rather than just reacting to lies.

Will that be enough to win? A new poll that will be released today by Research 2000 (commissioned by Daily Kos) shows Question 1 narrowly ahead by a 2-point margin. This makes the race a statistical dead heat, so anything can happen over the next 53 days. Only about 500,000 people are expected to vote in Maine, which makes an intensive field campaign that reaches every voter eminently winnable. Marriage equality supporters – especially Californians who are determined not to see another Prop 8 happen – must come to Maine, and be part of an historic campaign that protects marriage equality, and stops the right’s momentum.

That’s why the “No on 1” campaign is urging supporters to take a week of vacation time in October (when the Maine fall colors are in their full glory) – and come volunteer. And because flying from California can be expensive and challenging, local Obama activists who helped send volunteers to the swing states last year have launched “Travel for Change” – where supporters can donate money and/or airline miles to send a volunteer to Maine. No Californian who wants to go to Maine should feel deterred by the expense of a trip – just plan to go for at least a week.

Last year, many of us did not do enough to defeat Prop 8. For sure, a lot of people were distracted by the Presidential race. But the truth is “No on 8” did an awful job giving volunteers useful stuff to do – like standing at a street corner in the Castro. I tried to help, but ended up working on other campaigns because “No on 8” was making us do inane stuff that someone like myself – who has over a decade of campaign experience – could tell was pointless. When I volunteered for David Chiu in San Francisco – or went to Wisconsin to help Obama – the campaigns were organized enough to put volunteers to good use.

Having talked with the “No on 1” campaign in Maine, I am confident that out-of-state volunteers will be put to work – placed in local field offices to execute an intelligent strategy. Now, people in California need to start making their volunteer vacation plans.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Paul Hogarth will be in Maine October 3-13, and will offer daily dispatches for Beyond Chron readers.