Three months on the job and Cheryl Jacques looks comfortable in the eye of the hurricane.

It's 8:30 a.m. yesterday and the new president of Human Rights Campaign, one of the largest gay political groups, is giving marching orders to her volunteer army in the marriage wars. They've come from 25 states, 150 strong, and they're about to climb Capitol Hill to practice that most basic constitutional ritual: lobbying their representatives.

But first, Jacques says, she wants to introduce her family. "I even brought my sons this morning with football gear to root everybody on," she says. As if on cue, the nearly 2-year-old fraternal twins scamper across the back of the room. Tommy is in orange and Timmy is in yellow. Jacques's partner of six years, Jennifer Wade Chrisler, trails them vigilantly.

The amateur lobbyists get it. They probably didn't have to be told. Half of them have never spoken to a member of Congress before, but many have partners and children waiting for them back in Kansas or Alabama or Illinois.

"To be able to put a human face and tell these powerful stories is the most important thing you can bring to a legislator," says Jacques, who spent 11 years in the Massachusetts state Senate before she succeeded Elizabeth Birch as president of Human Rights Campaign in January.

Most of the men and women are dressed in business black and carrying briefing papers. Jacques sports the most color, an olive-brown suit. The buttons on their lapels say: "No FMA" -- no federal marriage amendment. They care about one thing on this largest annual "lobby day" in the 24-year history of Human Rights Campaign: stopping the proposed move to amend the U.S. Constitution to define marriage as only between a man and a woman.

She advises them to tell members of Congress not to let "anti-gay graffiti litter this magnificent document. . . . Then put meat on those bones by talking about your family and the impact on your family."

Outside the glass building at 17th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW, skirmishes in the marriage wars have been breaking out all over, a new one almost every day. Portland. Seattle. New Paltz, N.Y. Up in Boston on this day, in the Massachusetts legislature, lawmakers give preliminary approval to a state constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage but allow civil unions; the measure faces additional votes. Out in California, the state Supreme Court orders a halt to same-sex marriages in San Francisco.

In Washington, the main action is on the Hill, and one of the key players is a newcomer to town, who came out to her suburban Boston constituents just four years ago, surprising even herself.

Jacques, who resigned her Senate seat to take the job with Human Rights Campaign, briefly considers whether she misses the legislature, and the chance to fight in that state's constitutional battle.

No, she says. Guiding Human Rights Campaign, with 500,000 members and a $22 million budget to support efforts around the country, "it's far more than I could have done as a senator."

She buckles the twins into a double stroller. Chrisler, who worked for a venture capital firm but now stays home with the boys, will take them to the park.

The members of Jacques's lobby squad grab taxis and head hope-filled for the Hill.

Never underestimate the power of a march on Washington to change someone forever.

Jacques, 42 -- her name is pronounced "Jakes" -- was a prosecutor before she entered politics at 29. A Democrat, she beat a longtime Republican senator in a district west of Boston.

Jacques did not first become known as a crusader for gay rights. Her parents didn't even know she was gay. When she told them a few years later, her father, a retired executive, didn't speak to her for three years.

She made her reputation on gun control and victims' rights, though she also pushed for inclusion of sexual orientation in a hate-crime statute and worked on other issues important to gay activists. She was smart and almost immediately given leadership positions in the Senate. She was reelected five times.

"She was a star in the Senate," says Philip W. Johnston, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party.

In April 2000, she attended the Millennium March on Washington for Equality -- sponsored by Human Rights Campaign.

She heard a high school football star tell the crowd how he came out to his team. She recalls thinking: "He's half my age and has twice my courage."

A few months later, she led the fight to save state funding for a program that counseled gay teenagers who, she knew, attempted suicide at four times the rate of straight teens. When victory was celebrated, "everybody was happy except me," she says. She believed her efforts would be more powerful if people knew the senator was a lesbian.

One night she woke up at 2 and wrote an op-ed piece about saving that state program. It was published in the Boston Globe. In the fourth paragraph, she slipped in this understatement: "As a gay person myself, I understand in a very personal way the tremendous pressure these young people feel."

The reaction was immediate and largely positive, she says. Hundreds of messages came to her office, hordes of reporters. Her relationship with her father healed as well. He coached her for her interviews to land the Human Rights Campaign job.

But the welcome wasn't universal. When Jacques announced in 2001 that Chrisler was expecting twins, a state representative named Scott Brown told the Globe, "It's just not normal, in terms of what's normal in today's society."

Earlier this month was the special election to fill her seat. Brown, running against gay marriage, narrowly defeated her chief of staff, who supported gay marriage.

The other side of the debate is just as energized.

While Jacques's volunteers take to the Hill, the Washington-based Family Research Council dispatches teams to Massachusetts for the state's constitutional convention. And next week, the council is hosting 500 supporters for a three-day "Washington briefing."

In a telephone interview from Boston, Tony Perkins, president of the council, rejects the contention that this is a civil rights question, because he does not accept that homosexuality is "an immutable characteristic," like race. "We're talking about a behavior here," he says. "Where do you draw the line? Are not first cousins discriminated against? Would a polygamist not be discriminated against, if they were all consenting adults?"

Also active is the Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family. "The Constitution is going to be changed one way or another," says Glenn Stanton, senior analyst for marriage. "A small handful of radical activist judges are going to find in the Constitution a radical new definition of marriage, or the American people are going to protect marriage through the democratic amendment process established by the Founding Fathers."

In her small office, Jacques frames the stakes differently.

"We are literally writing the next chapter in civil rights," she says. In American history "there is a common theme that some people want to oppress others because of their differences" -- skin color, religion, national origin -- "now it's because of who they love. What's important to me is we've been there before as a country and we've always done what's right."

The fact that politicians such as Democratic presidential contender John Kerry consider recognizing marriage-like rights -- if not same-sex marriage -- safe political ground tells Jacques that ultimately her side will prevail. Only a few years ago recognizing those rights was considered radical. President Bush, meanwhile, called a news conference to announce his support for the federal amendment.

"I'll take someone who is not perfect but is willing to listen and learn," she says. "Frankly, I see that in John Kerry."

Jacques and her political director, Winnie Stachelberg, share a cab to the Hill.

They will meet with Rep. Mark Kirk, a moderate Republican from Illinois. He has been an ally on hate-crimes legislation and employment discrimination, but he has not stated a position on the amendment.

In the Longworth House Office Building, they see their volunteers making their rounds. Two North Carolina women report to Jacques on their meeting with a member of Sen. Elizabeth Dole's staff. "He was controlled-hostile," says one of the women.

But others say they have received more positive receptions.

Jacques and Stachelberg connect with a crew from Illinois and head to an ornate public room in the Capitol.

Kirk breezes in.

"We are very, very worried about this constitutional amendment that is being proposed," Jacques begins. " . . . This is probably one of the most important, historic votes" Kirk will ever cast.

But Kirk thinks the activists are unnecessarily concerned. "We're not going to vote on this, this year," he says confidently.

Jacques and her group are not so sure -- they've heard different reports.

"I've stopped being concerned about this, this is so dead," Kirk says, though he declines to say how he'd vote if the amendment came to the floor. His constituents, he says, just "want the status quo."

The meeting lasts 20 cordial minutes. At the end, Jacques gets out a snapshot of herself, Chrisler, Timmy and Tommy.

She tells Kirk about her family, how her partner's health care coverage is taxed, unlike a spouse's, how she worries if she should die about the extra tax on her house going to Chrisler, about the various extra charges that take away from their boys' education fund.

"When we talk about the status quo, we're talking about some little boys not having the same rights as other folks have," she says. "It's not just me and my partner, it's not just gay people, it's two little boys."

Kirk listens politely but says little.

In the cab back to her office, Jacques says, "I wanted him to know the impact the status quo has on real families. . . . I think that gets lost in all the politics."

Cheryl Jacques listens to Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), left, as she and others stump against a constitutional marriage amendment.Cheryl Jacques, president of Human Rights Campaign, confers with political director Winnie Stachelberg on their way to Capitol Hill yesterday.