Underscoring the importance of gays and lesbians in Democratic politics, most of the party’s presidential hopefuls gathered in Los Angeles on Thursday night for a televised forum on gay-rights issues.
Six candidates -- including the front-runner, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton; and her closest challengers, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards -- participated. All were jockeying to firm up support among gay and lesbian voters, one of the party’s more active and reliable voting blocs.
One candidate, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, got caught up in the most tense moment of the evening when he was asked whether he believes people are born gay or whether it is a choice.
“It’s a choice,” he said.
When pressed, the governor stumbled over his words but didn’t clearly change his answer, offering only, “I’m not a scientist. I don’t see this as an issue of science or definition. I see gays and lesbians as people as a matter of human decency.”
Richardson released a statement moments after the event, saying that he had misunderstood the question and that he does not believe people choose to be gay.
Throughout the two-hour event, sponsored by Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights group, the candidates at turns spoke confidently but also stepped gingerly around the edges of charged topics such as same-sex marriage.
Unlike the testy attacks and sniping that marked the Democratic forum in Chicago earlier in the week, Thursday’s encounter was decidedly more civil, with candidates appearing one at a time for about 20 minutes to answer questions from a panel that included singer Melissa Etheridge, who is a lesbian.
The forum was staged before about 200 invited guests at a small Hollywood studio and televised live on Logo, a cable and satellite network aimed at gays and lesbians.
The panelists tried to draw out Clinton, Obama, Edwards and Richardson on their opposition to expanding the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples.
None of them budged, all saying instead that they think gays and lesbians should be afforded the rights of married couples through civil unions.
“It’s not for me to suggest that you shouldn’t be troubled by these issues,” Obama said when a panelist asked if he could understand why gays would see that stance as unfair and unequal. “I understand that, and I’m sympathetic to it. But my job as president is going to be to make sure that the legal rights that have consequences on a day-to-day basis for loving, same-sex couples all across the country, that those are recognized and enforced.”
The position of the candidates is a calculated one in a country that is divided on the question. A recent Gallup poll found a slight majority of Americans support the idea of a constitutional amendment restricting marriage to between a man and woman.
Etheridge and the other panelists were at pains to challenge long-shot contenders Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, who both spoke strongly in favor of gay marriage.
“I’ve been told not to fawn over you,” Etheridge joked with Kucinich.
Clinton, like the other candidates, reaffirmed her strong opposition to the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and called for gays and lesbians to be allowed to serve openly in the armed forces.
Indeed, none of the candidates made any notable departures from the well-established and nearly identical positions they have carved out.
In questionnaires completed before the event, the candidates -- including Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, who did not attend -- all said, for example, that same-sex couples should be allowed to adopt. They also supported legislation pending in the Senate that would expand the definition of hate crimes to include those motivated by a victim’s sexual orientation and gender.
Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, welcomed the chance to hear the Democratic candidates but expressed frustration that they have not been more aggressive in addressing gay and lesbian issues.
“When they are out on the stump they rarely, if ever, come out in our defense,” he said. “The only time they talk about gay issues are at gay events or when they are asked specific questions.”
The positions of the Democrats stand in stark contrast to those of most of their Republican counterparts, who largely have staked out far more conservative territory on gay issues. Organizers of Thursday’s forum said Republican candidates had either ignored or declined invitations to a similar event.
Indeed, some political analysts questioned whether Republicans would try to use Democrats’ support for gay issues against them later in the presidential campaign.
“What you say in California in August can and likely will be repeated back to you in Pennsylvania or Ohio in October,” said Bruce Cain, director of the University of California Washington Center in the nation’s capital.
Regardless, with gays and lesbians seen as valuable constituents, and with Democratic voters growing steadily more liberal on sexual and gender issues in recent years, political observers stressed the strategic importance for Democratic candidates to make clear their support for gay rights.
“All these candidates want the support of the gay community. Politically, they are pretty generous with fundraising and very active,” said Bill Carrick, a longtime Democratic political consultant. “It is important for candidates to show up and make their views known, even if they can’t distinguish themselves.”