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The proposed marriage amendment to the Minnesota Constitution fell short of passage early Wednesday morning.

With 99 percent of precincts reporting, the amendment had the support of only 48 percent of voters. Support for the ballot measure trailed the combined "no" votes and blank ballots by more than 100,000 votes.

Shortly after 8 a.m. Wednesday, the main group that pushed for passage of the amendment conceded defeat.

"Despite the disappointing outcome of this election, we rejoice tonight that marriage is still marriage. We know that God has defined marriage as between one man and one woman, regardless of the efforts of some to overthrow His design," John Helmberger, chairman of Minnesota for Marriage, said in a news release.

Also on Wednesday morning, the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Minnesota, issued a statement.

"Despite this setback, our efforts to promote and defend the cornerstone social institution of marriage will continue.

"Our position on the amendment was never 'anti' anyone, but 'for' marriage… MCC will continue to support and advocate for public policy that best serves all of society, human dignity and the basic rights of children. Marriage needs to be strengthened, not redefined. We look forward to finding ways we can all work together as Minnesotans to strengthen marriage and family life."

Heading into Election Day, recent polls had shown the measure a dead heat, but also showed amendment support edging downward for weeks.

Amendment supporters and opponents had spent the last week in an all-out blitz to fire up their diverse and fragile coalitions across the state, stringing together supporters of all ages, religious faiths and political persuasions and on Tuesday night, neither was giving an inch.

"You dug down and fought for love, with love," Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak told hundreds of amendment opponents gathered at the RiverCentre in St. Paul late Tuesday night. "You understood compassion. This wound up being one of the most inspirational things that's ever happened in Minnesota. Minnesota is going to be the state that's going to show the country exactly what Minnesota values are all about."

An early and vocal opponent of the amendment, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton said "Minnesota is better than this" and criticized the ballot initiative as the "wrong way to lead, the wrong way to govern."

"We're for equality," Dayton said. "We understand the Constitution of the United States, we understand the founding premise where all men and women are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights and those certainly include the right to marry the person you love."

Marriage amendment supporters were shutting down their operations around 1 a.m. without the victory they had been certain of earlier in the evening.

Laurie Benson, a Catholic from Eureka Township, came to Minnesota for Marriage's election party to watch the returns come in.

"It's important to me because of my faith, what I've studied about it," Benson said in ballroom at the Embassy Suites Hotel near the airport in Bloomington. "The statistics, the facts, the science, the reason, that children do better under a marriage between one man and one woman."

Costly and divisive

Emerging as the most expensive and divisive ballot question in state history, Minnesota's marriage amendment battle has taken on a national significance as voters in Maryland, Maine and Washington also wrestled with marriage-related measures on Election Day.

Maine's legislature had legalized gay marriage, only to have voters overturn it. But on Tuesday, Maine voters passed a new amendment, proposed by gay marriage supporters, that makes it the first state in the country to pass a ballot initiative to recognize same-sex marriage. Maryland voters also opted to affirm marriage equality.

Opponents in Minnesota have spent more than a year building a coalition and raising millions of dollars to defeat the measure, knowing that even if they succeed, the law still bans same-sex marriage in Minnesota.

Supporters of both sides knew that no matter what the outcome, their work might not be done. A victory for anti-amendment forces could pave the way for a spinoff of their vast network of donors and supporters into a new effort to change the law.

Money poured in

The two campaigns have raised and spent more than $15 million airing the final barrage of television ads and unleashing enormous get-out-the-vote efforts that are unprecedented in size and scope for organizations not tied to political parties.

Minnesotans United for All Families has waged a far more high-profile effort than marriage amendment supporters, who deliberately favored a lower-key strategy.

In the closing weeks more than 1,800 people attended a rally at the University of Minnesota where political heavyweights like Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar joined with Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe to urge Minnesotans to vote no. Kluwe became a nationally known figure over the course of the election for his outspoken opposition to the amendment.

"The energy in this state is just amazing, and the energy comes from the last 17 months when we were thrust into this conversation that we did not ask for," said Richard Carlbom, Minnesotans United's campaign manager. "People around the country thought Minnesota would just sit down and take it. But we didn't, we stood up."

On Monday, Minnesotans United finished a four-day, multi-city RV tour to fire up supporters. As Election Day dawned, volunteers for the group braced to make more than 200,000 calls and knock on more than 150,000 doors.

In a bid to reach out to Republicans, conservative CNN commentator Margaret Hoover came to the Twin Cities over the weekend to aid Minnesotans United in its final push. As part of its finish, the campaign released a closing television ad featuring Republican state Rep. John Kriesel, an injured Iraq war vet who nearly two years ago gave a stirring Minnesota House speech against the proposed amendment. In the ad, Kriesel referenced U.S. Army Cpl. Andrew Wilfahrt, a gay Rosemount soldier who was killed in Afghanistan, saying it was not right he could die for his country but not marry the person he loved.

Amendment proponents released their own ads, warnings about children who could be required to learn about same-sex marriage in schools if the amendment passed.

Many Republicans had been trying to get the measure on the ballot for years but were blocked by the Democrats who controlled the Senate. After a historic Republican surge in 2010, the GOP finally won control of both bodies and gained political muscle to land the measure on the ballot.

Minnesota for Marriage then began its methodical preparations to round up supporters and persuade those who were on the fence. The campaign drew most of its fundraising and organizational support from church networks. They steered clear of high-profile rallies, most celebrity endorsements.

"We have run a very strategic, disciplined campaign," said Frank Schubert, campaign manager for Minnesota for Marriage. "Our work has not been about Minnesotans United and responding to their antics. We haven't encouraged a lot of public debates. We haven't gone tit for tat with them in the media."

Schubert, a California public relations consultant who started a new business focusing on social issues, also is running the pro-traditional marriage campaigns in Maine, Maryland and Washington.

Issue not likely to go away

The Catholic Church, groups like the Knights of Columbus and the National Organization for Marriage have been the go-to donors for the pro-amendment side. Still, the group trailed far behind amendment opponents, who easily cleared $10 million.

No matter the money, ads and even the vote itself, few believe the issue is going away.

"Up until now, the battle has been state by state, issue by issue," said John Green, a professor at the University of Akron, Ohio, who studies politics and religion. "But some advocates on both sides would like to see it before the Supreme Court because you could get a cleaner, clearer resolution."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Staff writers Matt McKinney and Rose French contributed to this report. Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044