LOS ANGELES, California -- Democratic presidential hopefuls stressed their common ground with the gay and lesbian community in a televised forum, but one significant exception loomed -- same-sex marriage.
A panel that included lesbian rocker Melissa Etheridge questions Sen. Barack Obama.
Thursday night's forum in Los Angeles was sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. It was broadcast on the gay-themed cable network Logo, making it the first-ever televised presidential forum on gay issues.
The group said it offered Republican presidential candidates the opportunity to participate in their own forum, but they declined.
The HRC, which claims 700,000 members, is the nation's largest advocacy group for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered communities.
While officially non-partisan, the HRC overwhelmingly backs Democrats. In 2006, just 11 of the 219 federal candidates endorsed by the group were Republicans, and the HRC also backed the losing presidential bids of both Sen. John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000. Watch how Democrats consider the gay community a key constituency »
With varying degrees of success, the front-running candidates in the Democratic field tried to reconcile their opposition to opening up marriage to gay and lesbian couples with their stated beliefs in gay and lesbian equality.
Asked what was at the heart of her opposition to same-sex marriage, Sen. Hillary Clinton said, "I prefer to think of it as being very positive about civil unions."
"It's a personal position," she said. "For me, we have made it very clear in our country that we believe in equality. How we get to full equality is the debate we're having."
Sen. Barack Obama said his view is that "we should try to disentangle what has historically been the issue of the word 'marriage,' which has religious connotations to some people, from the civil rights that are given couples."
"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 ... are recognized and enforced," he said.
John Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina and the Democratic Party's 2004 vice-presidential nominee, offered an apology for a previous statement that his religious faith was at the heart of his opposition to same-sex marriage.
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"I shouldn't have said that," said Edwards, who has previously said he has struggled with his position. "I believe to my core in equality. My campaign for the presidency is about equality across the board."
"All I can tell you is where I am today," he said. "I do not support same-sex marriage."
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson cast his opposition to same-sex marriage in pragmatic terms, saying "it's a question of doing what's achievable" and trying to move the country forward on the issue.
"In my heart, I'm doing what is achievable," he said. "And I'm not there yet, and the country isn't there yet."
However, two long-shot candidates in the field who do support same-sex marriage -- Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Mike Gravel, a former senator from Alaska -- made it clear they don't see why their rivals are so conflicted.
"This is really a question of whether you really believe in equality," Kucinich said. "When you understand what real equality is, you understand that people who love each other must have the opportunity to be able to express that in a way that's meaningful."
Gravel accused his better-known rivals of "playing it safe" on the marriage issue and said he believes same-sex marriage "will be a nonissue in the next presidential campaign" in 2012.
"Marriage is a commitment between two human beings in love," Gravel said. "And if there's anything we need in this world, it's more love."
A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released Thursday found that a majority of Americans -- 57 percent -- oppose same-sex marriage. Forty-three percent oppose both same-sex marriage and civil unions, which offer most or some of the protections and benefits of marriage.
All of the 2008 Democratic candidates are on record as supporting civil unions, a position also taken by President Bush, an opponent of same-sex marriage, during his 2004 re-election campaign.
While just 3 percent of voters in the 2006 election identified themselves as gay or lesbian, the community has outsized influence, particularly among Democrats, because it is politically active and a source of campaign contributions.
Reflecting that sway, six of the eight 2008 Democratic hopefuls -- all but Sens. Christopher Dodd and Joe Biden -- attended Thursday's event.
Eschewing the usual debate format, candidates appeared on stage one at a time, where they sat in an easy chair and fielded questions from a panel that included lesbian rocker Melissa Etheridge.
One area where the Democratic candidates were in clear agreement with gay rights advocates was on the question of ending the don't-ask-don't-tell policy, which allows gay men and lesbians to serve in the military only if they do not publicly disclose their sexual orientation.
Clinton -- whose husband, former President Bill Clinton, originally proposed the policy in 1993 -- said she changed her mind in 1999 and that repealing it would be "one of my highest priorities" as president.
Edwards also voiced his is opposition, but he noted that "'don't-ask-don't-tell is not just wrong now, it was wrong when it began. It's been wrong the entire time."
Thursday's poll also found strong public support for ditching don't-ask-don't-tell. Fifty-seven percent of those polled opposed the policy itself, while 79 percent said openly gay people should be allowed to serve in the military