Pursuing the Gay Vote, Without Supporting Gay Marriage

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 marks a break with the last presidential election cycle, when Democrats and gay activists were largely playing defense on issues like gay marriage while trying to avoid being boxed in by Republicans.

Now Democrats are going further than they ever have in the past in talking about their support for gay rights, said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group.

"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.

Recent months have featured several Democratic candidates talking about their positions on issues important to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities in highly personal terms.

Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards said at a presidential 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, like most of the rest of the Democratic field, supports civil unions but not gay marriage.

"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?"

And Clinton is coping with the complicated legacy of her husband's presidency. At a recent forum on gay-rights issues in Los Angeles, singer Melissa Etheridge confronted Sen. Clinton, saying that gays were "thrown under the bus" by President Clinton by his support for the Defense of Marriage Act and "don't ask, don't tell."

Clinton responded by defending her husband's record -- and by saying that she's ready to lead on gay-rights issues.

"Well, you know, obviously, Melissa, I don't see it quite the way that you describe, but I respect your feeling about it," she said.