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.
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."