The Democratic presidential candidates have begun to aggressively court gay and lesbian voters, with unprecedented outreach to match a major shift in policy positions among the major 2008 hopefuls.
The party's enthusiasm for expanding gay rights will be on prominent display Thursday night, when six Democratic candidates -- including the four who are topping national and state-level polls -- participate in a forum on gay issues, sponsored by the gay-rights group Human Rights and Campaign and the gay-themed Logo cable network.
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said Democrats are going further than they ever have in the past in talking about their support for gay rights -- and not just at forums organized by leaders of the gay and lesbian community.
"They're more enthusiastically embracing a broader set of positions," Solmonese said. "They're more willing to proactively talk about them, too. They've all been very forthcoming about where they are on the issues. They have been proud to talk about it."
Democrats Woo Gay and Lesbian Voters on Campaign Trail
On the campaign trail, all of the Democratic candidates are talking about expanding gay rights. Each of the candidates has called for ending the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that prevents gays and lesbians from serving openly in the armed services, even though that policy was put in place by President Bill Clinton -- the husband of Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.
Though only Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, and former Ohio Sen. Mike Gravel favor gay marriage, all the Democrats say they support civil unions that would give same-sex couples most of the rights and benefits available to married couples.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., is in favor of repealing the Defense of Marriage Act -- another initiative that was favored by President Clinton -- a move that some legal experts believe would require all states to recognize gay marriages sanctioned by any state. And the remaining candidates -- including Clinton -- would repeal at least a portion of that law, to allow gay couples whose marriages are recognized by any state to receive the federal benefits available to married couples.
Pollster: Democratic Candidates Reflecting Moderate Public Attitudes
Such positions -- and candidates' willingness to talk about them -- mark a sharp break from 2004, when Democrats and gay rights took a largely defensive stance. That year, 11 states -- including the crucial battleground of Ohio -- voted to ban gay marriage, in initiatives that some analysts said contributed to a poor showing by presidential candidate John Kerry and other Democrats.
But since then, public attitudes have begun to shift on gay rights, said Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster. That has freed up Democratic candidates to speak more explicitly and regularly about their views on gay rights.
"Year by year, the center of gravity shifts toward a more tolerant and accepting point of view," Garin said. "Time tends to be increasing the public's comfort level. Politics is changing because the world is changing. Real world change is leading political change, not vice versa."
Some conservative groups have begun criticizing the Democratic candidates for pandering to gay and lesbian interest groups. The Human Rights Campaign invited the Republican presidential candidates to participate in a separate forum, but the GOP contenders have so far declined.
Recent months have revealed several Democratic candidates talking about their positions on issues important to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities in highly personal terms.
Edwards' Split Over Gay Marriage
Former Sen.John Edwards of North Carolina said at a debate last month that while he does not support gay marriage, he feels "enormous conflict on the issue."
"I personally have been on a journey on this issue," Edwards said. "I do not [support gay marriage]. But this is a very, very difficult issue for me. And I recognize and have enormous respect for people who have a different view of it."
And candidates are using their family members to reach out to the gay and lesbian community. Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, told a gay group in June that while her husband is "very conflicted" on the subject, she personally supports gay marriage.
"I don't know why someone else's marriage has anything to do with me," Mrs. Edwards said. "I'm completely comfortable with gay marriage."
Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., recently cited his two young children as an example in arguing for equal treatment of gays and lesbians. Dodd, who supports civil unions though not gay marriage, is not planning on attending Thursday night's forum, citing a scheduling conflict.
"They may grow up as a different sexual orientation than their parents," Dodd said in New Hampshire in April. "How would I want my child to be treated if they were of a different sexual orientation?"
Melissa Carter, a lesbian radio host in Atlanta, said she's glad that Democrats appear to be realizing how "powerful our vote is." But she added that she's disappointed that most of the Democrats are shying away from full equal rights for gays and lesbians, including same-sex marriage.
"They're just being cautious," Carter said. "I know that politicians love to make promises to a group and a community when they feel their vote is necessary, but what will the follow-up be? This is new ground they're treading on. They don't know what to do this early."