NEW YORK - US President Barack Obama on Thursday touted his efforts to advance gay rights and promised further progress, but stopped short of declaring his support for legalizing same-sex marriage.
Obama received an enthusiastic reception from gay supporters at a New York fundraiser, but a few dozen gay rights protesters outside the hotel and a handful of hecklers inside the ballroom where he spoke served as reminders of frustration that he has not done more for their cause.
"I believe that gay couples deserve the same legal rights as any other couple in this country," Obama said to loud applause from a crowd of about 600 at the "Gala with the Gay Community" event.
Obama's speech reflected his desire to shore up his support among gay and lesbian voters, a key constituency that helped propel him to victory in the 2008 presidential election, as he revs up his 2012 re-election bid.
But with his eye on broadening his appeal to a much larger base of independent voters, Obama is seen as unlikely to make waves on issues like gay rights that could alienate social conservatives.
Obama stressed his record on gay issues, including winning repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in the military, his order for the Justice Department to stop defending the law that prohibits federal recognition of same-sex unions and expansion of benefits for same-sex partners of federal employees.
But Obama, who said in December his views on marriage for gay couples were "constantly evolving," held to a cautious line on the issue, saying only that it was a matter that should be decided by the states, not the federal government.
NEW YORK GAY-MARRIAGE DEBATE
Obama's visit came as lawmakers in the New York state capital, Albany, deliberated on whether to join Washington, D.C., and five states where gay marriage is legal.
Several people briefly heckled the president's speech, screaming, "Say yes to marriage!" when he described his initiatives on gay rights.
About 30 gay rights protesters gathered outside the hotel, chanting, "Obama, Obama, let mama marry mama."
Louis Flores, 38, said he was "angry and disappointed" that Obama had not done more on gay marriage. "We should all be holding the president to his campaign promise."
Obama acknowledged some disappointment among his gay supporters and pledged further efforts.
"Yes we have more work to do, yes we have more progress to make, yes I expect continued impatience with me on occasion," he told the audience at the fundraiser hosted by actor Neil Patrick Harris, where tickets started at $1,250 a plate.
The US public is nearly evenly split over whether gays and lesbians should be able to marry legally, with 45 percent in favor and 46 percent opposed, according to a Pew Research poll released last month.
Younger voters, an important demographic for Obama, are particularly accepting of homosexuality and could react well to initiatives on gay causes.
A CNN exit poll showed 4 percent of voters were gay, lesbian or bisexual, and 70 percent of them voted for Obama. Other estimates put gays at 7 percent of overall voters.
The gay community is also seen as an influential group in US media and Hollywood, and as an important fundraising bloc.