By Laura MacInnis
NEW YORK (Reuters) - 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, lesbian and bisexual 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 applause from a crowd of 600 at the "Gala with the Gay Community" event hosted by actor Neil Patrick Harris, where tickets started at $1,250 a plate.
Obama's speech reflected his desire to shore up his support among gay and lesbian voters, a constituency that supported him strongly in the 2008 presidential vote, as he revs up his 2012 re-election bid.
But as he seeks to broaden his appeal to a wide base of independent voters, the president is not expected to push any new gay rights initiatives that could alienate social conservatives over the next year.
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.
'OBAMA, LET MAMA MARRY MAMA'
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, "Marriage!" and "Say yes to marriage!" when he described his initiatives on gay rights.
About 30 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."
The U.S. 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 media and Hollywood, and as an important fundraising bloc.
Later on Friday, Obama attended an intimate fundraiser for Wall Street and other supporters who paid $35,800 each at a small Upper East Side restaurant, and then spoke to an audience at a screening of the Broadway show "Sister Act," who paid $100 and up to attend the event with actor Whoopi Goldberg.
At the restaurant fundraiser, Obama acknowledged he may have a tougher time garnering enthusiasm about his candidacy in 2012 than he did in 2008, joking that his graying hair had made him seem less fresh-faced than the last time around.
"Now I'm sort of old news. But the vision hasn't changed, and my enthusiasm and my commitments haven't changed. And I hope yours haven't changed either, because if we're able to work just as hard as we did in 2008, then I think we're going to get through this very difficult time," he said.
(Writing by Laura MacInnis and Matt Spetalnick; Additional reporting by Kim Dixon, Paula Rogo, Mark Egan and Michelle Nichols; Editing by Anthony Boadle)