One of two groups competing to put a gay marriage ban before California voters in 2006 has bowed out of the fight for now, saying the timing and political climate are not right to get such a measure passed.

Tuesday was the deadline for ProtectMarriage.com to submit the signatures needed to qualify for the June primary ballot one of two overlapping initiatives that would outlaw same-sex marriage and restrict domestic partnership rights.

Andrew Pugno, the group's legal adviser, said the signature drive had fallen about 200,000 voters short of the requirement for 591,105 signatures.

Pugno said factors in the group's decision included the difficulty of raising money in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; the dimming prospect that the California Legislature will reconsider a bill legalizing gay marriage next year; and a lawsuit on the issue that is not expected to reach the state Supreme Court until late 2006.

"It boils down to a recognition that a ballot fight isn't likely until 2008," Pugno said. "This doesn't resolve the issue by any means; it merely delays the resolution."

VoteYesMarriage.com, the other group seeking to have California join 18 states that have amended their constitutions to ban gay marriage, has not abandoned the hope of qualifying an initiative for next November, said organizer Randy Thomasson.

However, the group has postponed launching its petition drive while raising money to hire professional signature-gatherers, he said.

"Whether for 2006 or 2008, VoteYesMarriage.com is devoted to giving the people the chance to protect marriage from the clutches of the bureaucracy," Thomasson said.

Last summer, the California Legislature became the nation's first elected state body to pass a bill legalizing gay marriage. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the law, but conservative activists warned that without amending the Constitution it was only a matter of time before either lawmakers or the courts sanctioned same-sex unions.

A rift among conservatives, however, led the two groups to promote dueling gay marriage bans while sniping publicly over which proposal was better. At the center of the split was disagreement over how far the anti-gay marriage camp should go in attempting to repeal the significant spousal rights domestic partners are granted in California.