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."
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.
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.