Democratic presidential contenders Thursday sought to underscore their differences with Republicans on gay and lesbian rights, but leading candidates also faced sharp questions on their reluctance to embrace marriage for same-sex couples.
In a forum focusing on gay issues sponsored by a gay-rights organization and aired on a gay cable channel, Sen. Barack Obama argued that civil unions for same-sex couples wouldn’t be a “lesser thing” than marriage. He disputed that his position on same-sex marriage made him a vestige of the past rather than an agent of change.
“Semantics may be important to some. From my perspective, what I’m interested (in) is making sure that those legal rights are available to people,” he said.
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.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said the nation was on “a path to full inclusion” but added, “In my judgment, what is achievable is civil unions with full marriage rights.”
Six of the eight Democratic candidates were scheduled to answer questions at an event described as a milestone by organizers. It marked the first time that major presidential candidates appeared on TV specifically to address gay issues, the organizers said.
Obama called the event “a historic moment ... for America.”
The two-hour forum, held in a Hollywood studio with an invited audience of 200, was 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.
“We already won because the candidates are here,” Logo president Brian Graden said.
Of the eight Democratic candidates, two did not attend, Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware and Chris Dodd of Connecticut.
The candidates, who were to appear one at a time and sit in an upholstered chair, were taking questions from a panel that included Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese, singer Melissa Etheridge and Washington Post editorial writer Jonathan Capehart.
New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was cheered by the crowd when she alluded to the prospect for change at the White House in the 2008 election. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards argued that Democrats must speak out against discrimination coming from the other party.
“If you stand quietly by and let it happen, what happens is it takes hold,” Edwards said.
Without speaking out against intolerance it becomes “OK for the Republicans in their politics to divide America and use hate-mongering to separate us,” Edwards said.
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.
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.