- The Washington Times - Friday, July 13, 2007

The Human Rights Campaign says that the White House contenders are a more “gay friendly” bunch than in 2003 and that nearly all the Democratic hopefuls plan to attend the homosexual rights group’s televised debate next month.

Democrats seeking their party’s nod in the 2004 cycle were hesitant to pledge that they would fight for homosexual rights, and Sen. John Kerry drew boos at the Human Rights Campaign’s forum in 2003 for his stance on traditional marriage.

Mr. Kerry, of Massachusetts, has said the marriage protection measure on the ballot that year cost him thousands of votes in Ohio and ultimately his bid to unseat President Bush.

The three Democrats leading in the polls — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina — also think same-sex couples should not be allowed to legally exchange wedding vows. But each front-runner, along with the other contenders, supports civil unions and is giving unprecedented attention to homosexual rights on the campaign trail.

Several have “LGBT advisers” who help them advocate issues of importance to “lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender” people, and have hosted events to hear from such voters. So far, the three leading Democrats have said they will attend the Aug. 9 debate in Los Angeles, along with Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio.

“They are willing to stand publicly and talk about their support of equality and that’s a good sign for us,” said Brad Luna, spokesman for District-based Human Rights Campaign. “Candidates are able to speak more freely about being able to be supportive about our issues and extending rights and equality for all Americans instead of being caught in the middle of divisive issues.”

Patrick Sammon, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, agreed and said candidates who used traditional marriage as a wedge issue during the last election were all defeated.

Mr. Sammon is not surprised that none of the Republican presidential candidates has accepted the debate invitation, and he stressed that a recent New Hampshire poll showed same-sex unions ranked No. 17 on a list of the issues most important to Republican primary voters.

“2008 is going to be a very tough election for Republicans, so we need to nominate a candidate who can bring together a wide group of people,” he said. “No matter what someone’s views are on same-sex marriage, if they are worried about their kid who is serving in Iraq or if they are worried about healthcare, I don’t think they will be focused on whether the two men who live across the street from them are going to get domestic partner benefits or not.”

Already, the tone among the Democrats is different this time around.

All of the candidates said they would repeal former President Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy forbidding homosexuals from serving openly in the military.

Elizabeth Edwards recently spoke at the Alice B. Toklas Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Democratic Club the weekend of the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade, saying she believes same-sex couples should be able to legally exchange vows, a position she does not share with her husband.

“I’m completely comfortable with gay marriage,” said Mrs. Edwards, who will speak at a Human Rights Campaign (HRC) dinner tonight in San Francisco.

Her appearance itself was historic. No White House hopeful has visited the Gay Pride event in its three-decade life span.

The candidates all support legal recognition of civil unions, a measure that was just approved by New Hampshire legislators.

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in 2003 did a study showing those candidates “are less supportive than the general public” on “freedom to marry.”

HRC hopes the debate does not just shine a spotlight on marriage, but instead puts a focus on healthcare issues, AIDS funding and adoption rights, Mr. Luna said.

This year, each of the candidates was ranked exactly the same on the HRC issue scorecard, with the exception of marriage.

Only Mr. Kucinich and former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska believe same-sex couples should be able to legally wed.

Mr. Gravel, a long-shot candidate with the most liberal views of the bunch, was not invited to the debate because he did not meet a fundraising threshold, organizers said.

“I can confidently say, of all presidential candidates, I’ve been the most outspoken advocate for gay rights,” Mr. Gravel wrote in a blog on Huffington Post.

Mr. Gravel, who also attended the Gay Pride event in San Francisco, noted that he has been lauded by a newspaper for homosexuals as “unabashedly pro-gay marriage” and accused HRC of excluding him for being “too vocal” and making the other candidates uncomfortable.

“As long as our nation deprives gays and lesbians of basic rights, including marriage, we have not fulfilled the promise of the Declaration of Independence … ,” he wrote, adding that he would be rooting for Mr. Kucinich.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware had a scheduling conflict and will not attend. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who gave a keynote speech at the campaign’s gala this spring, has not yet responded to the debate request, Mr. Luna said.

Mr. Richardson, who is Hispanic, apologized recently for using a Spanish homosexual slur when appearing on the Don Imus program more than a year ago.

Republican front-runner Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, is considered as having a “big tent” philosophy that includes support for expanded homosexual rights, but he joined the other Republicans who would keep “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“The Republican candidates are stuck in 1993. They don’t understand this issue has changed, that the policy is hurting our national security,” Mr. Sammon said.

A post on Andrew Sullivan’s blog at Atlantic Online accused the HRC of hosting the event “for their own marketing purposes” and called it “a ghettoized forum with no journalists, their own chief hack and a celebrity.”

“Their only historic achievement is to dumb down and seal off the important national conversation about gay equality,” he wrote.

HRC will broadcast the one-hour forum on Logo, a cable channel that is part of the MTV network, as well as stream the debate online.

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