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Democratic Candidates Address Gay Rights Issues

Kucinich and former senator Mike Gravel (Alaska) were praised for their support of same-sex marriage.

But Obama, who was questioned first by the moderators, appeared frustrated by a question that noted that people under 30 back gay marriage at higher rates than others and asked how he could be "a candidate of change when your stance on same-sex marriage is decidedly old school?"

"Oh, come on, now," Obama said. "I mean, look, guys, you know, I mean, we can have this conversation for the duration of the 15 minutes." He added, "If people are interested in my stance on these issues, I've got a track record of working with the LGBT community."

Richardson was the only candidate who opposes same-sex marriage to acknowledge the complicated politics of the issue.

"The country isn't there yet on gay marriage," he said. "We have to bring the country along."

His comment on the roots of homosexuality drew hisses from the audience of about 200.

Activists say this year's event was a milestone in showing the Democratic candidates' interest in courting the gay and lesbian vote.

"It firmly establishes us a major constituency in the Democratic Party," said David Mixner, a longtime gay rights activist and Democratic fundraiser. "It's a real validation of our position within the party."

Unlike sessions on Saturday with liberal bloggers at the Yearly Kos convention and on Tuesday with labor union members in Chicago, where the candidates sought to win over influential liberal interest groups, the candidates were not on stage at the same time last night. Instead, each of the Democrats took questions separately from the panelists.

Six Democratic candidates appeared, and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.), who cited scheduling conflicts as his reason for not coming, said he would post answers to the questions presented at the forum on his campaign's Web site. The only other major Democratic contender to skip the event was Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), who also cited scheduling problems. Organizers said they invited several Republican presidential candidates to appear as well, but the GOP hopefuls declined.

Already, the candidates from the two parties have diverged sharply in rhetoric on gay rights issues. During a GOP debate earlier this year, none of the candidates said they would change the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, and several have strongly argued that marriage should be defined as being between a man and a woman. The Democrats, on the other hand, have courted gay rights supporters more aggressively than ever.

Clinton has criticized the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, established during her husband's administration, and has offered the line from onetime GOP senator from Arizona and presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater: "You don't have to be straight to shoot straight." In 2003, the future Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), said he did not like the policy but warned that some units might be adversely affected by having gay members.

Edwards released a list of his prominent gay backers on the eve of the forum, as did Obama. Clinton, who had put out a similar list, has had two fundraisers for her gay supporters and planned to attend an event at The Abbey, a well-known gay bar in Los Angeles.

The candidates have not forgotten the complicated politics of gay rights, which may be a popular cause in the Democratic primary but will prove to be a more complicated issue in the general election. Almost a dozen states voted to ban same-sex marriage in 2004, leaving Democrats wondering if those ballot initiatives increased turnout among conservative Republicans.

In March, gay rights activists were infuriated when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace called homosexuality "immoral," and Obama and Clinton at first sidestepped questions about whether they disagreed with Pace's sentiments. At the forum, Clinton called this stance a "mistake," saying she should have rebuked him earlier.

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