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Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina said public school students “need to understand why same-sex couples are the parents of some of the children.”

When pressed, he said he hadn’t thought about what age would be appropriate to educate children about homosexuality.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former congressman, said he regretted voting for the Defense of Marriage Act during the Clinton administration but said he prefers civil unions and fighting for “what is achievable.”

“The country isn’t there yet,” he said.

He also talked about his expansion of anti-discrimination laws to include sexual orientation in New Mexico, and noted he gave same-sex couples in domestic partnerships state health insurance.

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio received a lion’s share of the audience’s praise last night, saying he agrees with everything HRC wants.

“There is no power on this earth greater than human love. Real equality people who love each other must have a way to express that in a way that is meaningful,” he said.

Former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska was the only other candidate on stage last night to have such a sentiment, and he called the others “weak” for saying they won’t push any changes to federal marriage laws.

Asked “what is at the heart of your opposition to same-sex marriage,” Mrs. Clinton smiled and said: “I prefer to think of it as being very positive about same-sex unions,” adding her opposition is “personal.”

Mr. Obama said the word “marriage” should be “disentangled” from the debate, and that his administration would allow same-sex couples to have a civil union “that provides all the benefits that are available for legally sanctioned marriage.”

Mr. Edwards said as president he would extend “exactly the same” rights to same-sex and straight couples.

The panelists asked Mr. Edwards about a comment in a debate last month about how his Southern Baptist religion shapes his views on marriage, and the former senator backed down: “I shouldn’t have said that.”

“I do not support same-sex marriage,” Mr. Edwards said, adding, “We’re past the time for political doublespeak on this” and noting his position “has not changed.”

His wife Elizabeth Edwards and his daughter disagree, prompting Edwards supporter Eric Stern to say he wasn’t worried because “we would have a first lady in Elizabeth who would be our personal lobbyist on the issue.”

Mr. Edwards started the day rolling out endorsements from Mr. Stern and Stephen Handwerks, two homosexual men who said they feel included in the political process for the first time because Democrats have ignored their concerns for years.

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