[Courtesy of Monsters and Critics. The fact that we're even having this debate shows us how far the US has come. The fact that Republican candidates were invited but declined to participate shows that their conservative base is far, far behind ... or is perceived to be.]
LOS ANGELES - Six Democrats running for the White House made some history on Thursday night as they debated such issues as same-sex marriage versus civil unions in an unprecedented nationally televised forum directed at gay voters.
While the event, carried live on the gay-oriented cable network Logo, owned by Viacom Inc., shed little new light on candidates' positions, organizers hailed it as a political milestone.
The two-hour event marked the first time that an ensemble of major-party candidates for president -- this one all Democrats -- appeared together specifically to address a gay and lesbian audience in a national telecast.
Gays are estimated to account for 4 to 6 percent of the U.S. electorate, and, according to a recent survey, the percentage who turned out to vote in the 2004 presidential race topped 90 percent, far more than the public at large.
Organizers said candidates of both major parties were invited to take part but that no Republicans accepted.
'We pulled the curtain back a bit and gave all Americans a deeper look inside the candidates' core beliefs about the issues that affect our community,' said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian civil rights group that co-sponsored the forum.
Still, Solmonese said he was disappointed in the stand taken by four of the candidates, including front-runners Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards, in supporting civil unions for same-sex couples over full-fledged marriage.
The question of same-sex marriage vs. civil unions, which dominated Thursday's discussion, has emerged as a hot-button issue in the gay community and a tricky one for Democrats who count gays and lesbians among their core constituency.
'While we heard very strong commitments to civil unions and equality in federal rights and benefits, their reasons for opposing equality in civil marriage tonight became even less clear,' Solmonese said.
Solmonese was one of four panelists posing questions to the candidates, who appeared separately for 20 minutes each. Rock star and activist Melissa Etheridge also was a panelist.
At least one candidate, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, seemed to stumble when asked by Etheridge if he believed homosexuality was a choice or biological.
'It's a choice,' he said at first. 'I'm not a scientist. I don't see this as an issue of science or definition.'
When pressed on the point that opponents of gay rights often assert that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice, Richardson said, 'I don't think it's a matter of preferences, I think it's a matter of equality.'
His campaign later issued a statement 'clarifying' his position: 'Let me be clear -- I do not believe that sexual orientation or gender identity happen by choice.'
Like Richardson, the three leading Democrats in the race -- New York Sen. Clinton, Illinois Sen. Obama and former North Carolina Sen. Edwards -- struggled to explain why they oppose same-sex marriage but support civil unions that confer all the same legal rights that married couples enjoy.
'My view is 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 to couples,' Obama said.
Edwards backed away from previous statement that his opposition to gay marriage was grounded in his religious faith, stating, 'I shouldn't have said that.'
The two lone candidates backing full marriage for same-sex couples were two trailing the most in the polls -- Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel.
All the candidates decried what they characterized as Republican attempts to use the debate over gay marriage to distract Americans from other issues.
As of January 2008, New Hampshire will become only the fourth state allowing civil unions for gay couples. Only Massachusetts permits full same-sex marriage. Twenty-six states have constitutional amendments barring gay marriage.