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Democratic presidential contenders faced pointed questions on gay marriage and the basis for sexual orientation in a forum that forced candidates to confront politically touchy issues that have vexed a nation.
Former Sen. John Edwards found himself discussing whether he is comfortable around gay people — he said he is. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson appeared to struggle with a question about why people become gay or lesbian. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton ended up defending the record of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, on gay rights.
“We certainly didn’t get as much done as I would have liked,” the New York senator said. “But there was a lot of honest effort.”
Six of the eight Democratic candidates answered questions Thursday on gay rights at the two-hour forum co-sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group active in Democratic politics, and Logo, a gay-oriented cable TV channel that aired the forum live.
Organizers said it marked the first time that major presidential candidates appeared on TV specifically to address gay issues. The candidates appeared one at a time in an upholstered chair on a Hollywood studio set and took questions from a panel that included singer Melissa Etheridge.
The candidates underscored differences with Republicans on gay and lesbian rights, but leading candidates also faced aggressive questioning on their reluctance to embrace marriage for same-sex couples.
All of the Democratic candidates support a federal ban on anti-gay job discrimination, want to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy barring gays from serving openly in the military and support civil unions that would extend marriage-like rights to same-sex couples.
A majority of Americans oppose nationwide recognition of same-sex marriage and only two of the Democrats support it — former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, both longshots for the nomination.
Barack Obama belongs to the United Church of Christ, which supports gay marriage, but Obama has yet to go that far.
“If we have a situation in which civil unions are fully enforced, are widely recognized, people have civil rights under the law, then my sense is that’s enormous progress,” the Illinois Democrat said.
In a campaign dominated by the Iraq war and terrorism, the forum provided unusually probing talk about issues that alternately touched on questions of tolerance, morality and religion.
Clinton said she made a mistake in March when she steered around a question on whether homosexuality was immoral. She was asked about it at the time after Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he considered homosexual acts immoral and similar to adultery. He later said he should have not expressed his personal views. Clinton later issued a statement saying she did not think being gay was immoral.
“It was a mistake,” Clinton said. “I should have put it in a broader context.”
Clinton was cheered by the crowd when she alluded to the prospect for change at the White House in the 2008 election. Edwards argued that Democrats must speak out against discrimination coming from the Republican right wing.
Unless you speak out against intolerance, it becomes “OK for the Republicans in their politics to divide America and use hate-mongering to separate us,” Edwards said.
Etheridge, speaking to Edwards, said she had heard he once said he felt uncomfortable around gay people — an assertion contained in longtime political strategist Bob Shrum’s book “No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner.”
“I’m perfectly comfortable,” Edwards said. “I know where it came from. It came from a political consultant. And he’s just wrong.”
Richardson skirted a thorny debate on homosexuality.
When asked by Etheridge whether “homosexuality is a choice or is it biological?” he said, “I don’t see this as an issue of science or definition. I see gays and lesbians as human beings.”
Richardson later elaborated in a statement issued by his campaign:
“Let me be clear — I do not believe that sexual orientation or gender identity happen by choice,” Richardson said. “But I’m not a scientist, and the point I was trying to make is that no matter how it happens, we are all equal and should be treated that way under the law.”
When Kucinich was asked whether there was anything on the agenda for gay and lesbian rights he didn’t support, he paused and said, “All I can say is, keep those contributions coming … and you’ll have the president that you want.”
In a statement clearly aimed at the leading Democrats in the field, he said his support for same-sex marriage was “a question of whether you really believe in equality.”
Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese, who was on a panel posing questions to the candidates, said in a statement, the forum “was an important night in the fight for equality.”
“Unfortunately, we have more work to do,” Solmonese said. “The overwhelming majority of the candidates do not support marriage equality. While we heard very strong commitments to civil unions and equality in federal rights and benefits, their reasons for opposing equality in civil marriage tonight became even less clear.”
Of the eight Democratic candidates, two did not attend, Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware and Chris Dodd on Connecticut.
Logo, available in about 27 million homes, wanted to hold a second forum for Republican candidates but GOP front-runners showed no interest, channel officials said.