As many as 4,000 people attended a Judiciary Committee hearing on gay marriage in Augusta, Maine Wednesday. The daylong hearing began at about 9:30AM at the Augusta Civic Center and lasted well into the night.

Maine lawmakers are considering a gay marriage bill introduced by Senator Dennis S. Damon in February and another proposed by Representative Leslie Fossel that expands the state's domestic partner registry to grant gay and lesbian couples most of the rights of marriage. Fossel says he sponsored the bill to spare Maine a divisive debate on gay marriage.

Damon's opening remarks were greeted with a loud cheer and a standing ovation from gay marriage supporters who appeared to outnumber opponents.

“This bill is fair. This bill's time has come,” Damon, a Democrat from Trenton, told the crowd. “It recognizes the worth and dignity of every man and every woman among us.”

Supporters appeared resolved in projecting a strong show of force. Earlier in the week, Betsy Smith, executive director of Equality Maine, a rights group that lobbies for gay marriage in Maine, urged proponents to attend the hearing. And then again, yesterday evening, she emailed a quick note that said, “Please come to the Augusta Civic Center now. ... We need you here now.”

That's for sure. While gay marriage has been on a roll in recent weeks – Vermont and Iowa just legalized it, New York is pressing for it and Washington D.C. will now recognize out-of-state marriages – it now appears to be losing steam. None of the three remaining New England states considering gay marriage bills this session – New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Maine – appear likely to pass them.

But if there's any hope, it's in Maine where Governor John Baldacci has switched his previously stated gay marriage opposition to neutrality, and polling indicates strong support for gay marriage, especially in the southern edge of the state.

The bill's largest opponent, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, sent Bishop Richard Malone to testify against the bill.

“We speak in opposition to same-sex marriage because we are deeply concerned about the institution of marriage itself – in this state, and in this nation,” he said.

Catholic leaders have already begun their anti-gay marriage campaign airing two television ads that depict the institution of marriage as being under assault and launching a website ( devoted to opposing it. The diocese appears determined to block gay marriage, either at the Legislature or, if necessary, by organizing a referendum.

According to Equality Maine and the state's legislative website, as many as 8 of the 13 voting Judiciary Committee members are co-sponsors to the bill, making committee passage nearly certain. (Some Equality Maine listed co-sponsors could not be verified at the time of this writing.) The committee may send the bill to the Senate for a full vote as early as April 28.