Arguing that the nation is not ready to accept same-sex marriage, the frontrunners for the Democratic presidential nomination Thursday sought to convince an audience of gay and lesbian voters in Los Angeles that strong civil union laws could accomplish the same thing as gay marriage.
Although they reiterated their support for a repeal of the military's ban on openly gay servicemen, as well as their backing of a federal ban on anti-gay job discrimination, few appeared ready to stray from their carefully crafted statements on gay marriage.
"If we have a situation in which civil unions are fully enforced, are widely recognized, people have civil rights under then law, then my sense is that's enormous progress," said Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.
The event, cosponsored by the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, and MTV's Logo Channel, was billed as the first time frontrunners for the presidency discussed LGBT issues on live television.
Bloomberg News columnist Margaret Carlson moderated the discussion. She was joined on stage by Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solomonese, rocker Melissa Etheridge and Washington Post editorial writer Jonathan Capehart.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton stressed that although she believed in "full equality," she was not in a position to support gay marriage.
"How we get to full equality is the debate we are having," Clinton said.
Only two candidates - former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich - openly embraced same-sex marriage.
Seated in a Hollywood studio designed to look more like the set of a talk show than a presidential debate, each of the candidates appeared in individual 15-minute intervals to answer questions from the panelists.
No two candidates ever shared the stage.
Carlson told the studio audience that none of the GOP candidates agreed to Logo's invitation to organize a similar debate for Republicans.
The Democratic candidates' positions on gay issues had largely been known before Thursday night's event, and few in attendance expected any major about-faces on the marriage issue.
In a move that could cost him significant support within the gay community, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson caused noticeable groans when Etheridge asked if he thought "homosexuality is a choice, or is it biological?"
"It's a choice," Richardson said.
When asked to clarify, Richardson said he was "not a scientist" and did not "like to categorize people."
Speaking to reporters after the event, Solomonese, the HRC president, said "I feel like the immediate action item here is a conversation with Governor Richardson."
The Richardson camp later emailed a statement to reporters saying he had misunderstood the question.
"Let me be clear- I do not believe that sexual orientation or gender identity happen by choice. But I'm not a scientist, and the point I was trying to make is that no matter how it happens, we are all equal and should be treated that way under the law.
For his part, Edwards sought to extinguish rumors that he had once told a staffer he was uncomfortable around gay people.
The story "came from a political consultant. And he's just wrong," Edwards said.
The event's organizers initially received some criticism after Gravel was not invited to the forum. Gravel has been among the most outspoken supporters of gay marriage in the Democratic field.
Officials at the Human Rights Campaign said Gravel had not met the fundraising threshold to be invited to the event. Community pressure convinced the event's organizers to reverse course and invite Gravel.
Of the eight Democrats running for president, only Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd and Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden did not attend, citing scheduling conflicts.
Logo, which broadcasts gay-oriented programming to 27 million cable subscribers, also streamed the forum live on its Web site.
After the event, Obama, Clinton and Edwards each moved on to fundraisers at swank West Hollywood hot spots, hoping to line up more gay and lesbian backers in donor-rich Southern California.
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