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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - After failing to stop recent gay marriage approvals in several states, opponents have found an attractive, telegenic poster woman in Miss California, a move reminiscent of beauty queen Anita Bryant's 1970s crusade against gay rights.
Miss California, a Christian college student named Carrie Prejean, joined in a television ad campaign against gay marriage this week, upsetting homosexual rights advocates, including a head of the Miss California pageant.
In the commercial from the National Organization for Marriage, Prejean is shown at the Miss USA competition last month where she answered a question about same-sex marriage by saying she opposed it, drawing both boos and cheers and setting off a raucous debate.
After providing that answer, Prejean was named runner-up to Miss USA. She later said her view on marriage cost her the crown.
As gay marriage opponents have rallied around Miss California, they have also lost key battles in recent weeks.
On Wednesday, New Hampshire's Senate passed a bill to legalize same-sex marriage and if the governor signs it, the state could become the fifth to legalize gay weddings.
Last month, Iowa became the first Midwest state to allow gay marriage, and Vermont became the first to legalize it through legislative action.
Craig Rimmerman, co-editor of "The Politics of Same-Sex Marriage," said Prejean's rise to prominence comes as gay marriage opponents are on the defensive.
"The conservative right is wondering if same-sex marriage is as potent an issue politically as it was in the past," he said. "So for them to have a different spokeswoman who comes at this from a different background, they probably see this as a really positive development."
California is often characterized as a liberal state for politics in Los Angeles and San Francisco, but Prejean comes from a small town, Vista, in conservative San Diego County.
The 21-year-old is not a permanent spokeswoman for the National Organization for Marriage, but in recent weeks she has appeared on TV shows reaffirming her views on gay marriage, and on Thursday she joined the group to launch the TV ad.
"I think that Carrie's story is resonating incredibly," said Maggie Gallagher, the group's president. "Because she comes across as what she is, she's just a genuine, decent, honest person who stood up for truth and gave up the tiara."
In the 1970s, another beauty queen named Anita Bryant, a former Miss Oklahoma, became a voice against homosexuality after leading a campaign to repeal a Miami-area gay rights ordinance. She was famously quoted as saying, "If gays are granted rights, next we'll have to give rights to prostitutes and to people who sleep with St. Bernards and to nail-biters."
In contrast to Bryant's bluntness, Prejean has said she means "no offense," a phrase she used at the Miss USA pageant while answering a question from gay celebrity blogger Perez Hilton by stating, "in my country and in my family, I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman."
Keith Lewis, the co-executive director of the Miss California pageant, said Prejean was attended to by gay beauty experts before the Miss USA contest, and that he always knew her to be friendly to gays like himself.
But Lewis said he was disappointed with her stance against same-sex weddings, and that while she keeps her crown as Miss California, she is speaking for herself on gay marriage.
Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis: Editing by Bob Tourtellotte