WASHINGTON, July 15 The issue was gay marriage. The occasion was a candidates' forum, sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign, a group advocating gay rights. And the scene today was a political tap dance, as the leading Democratic presidential contenders struggled to explain how they would extend legal benefits of marriage to gays, without using the M-word itself.
"I don't believe that is a distinction that makes a difference," Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, said, declaring himself against gay marriage but in favor of "civil unions" that would allow gays and their partners tax benefits, health benefits, hospital visitation and other rights accorded married people.
Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, took a similar view, as did Howard Dean, who as governor of Vermont three years ago signed the nation's first law allowing same-sex civil unions in a state. Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri also declared himself in the civil unions camp. It was a position that put him at odds with his daughter, Chrissy, a lesbian, who favors gay marriage and who attended the event with her father.
Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, speaks at the Human Rights Campaign forum in Washington, Tuesday July 15, 2003. Seven Democratic candidates spoke on issues affecting the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. (AP Photo/Akira Ono)
Seven of the nine Democratic presidential candidates attended today's forum. Senator John Edwards of North Carolina and Senator Bob Graham of Florida did not show up. They said through spokesmen that they opposed gay marriage but supported extending health and other benefits to the domestic partners of gays.
Of the seven in attendance, only the Rev. Al Sharpton and Representative Dennis J. Kucinich supported gay marriage unambiguously.
"That's like asking me, `Do I support black marriage or white marriage,' " Mr. Sharpton said, to thunderous applause, when the moderator, Sam Donaldson of ABC News, asked if he supported gay marriage.
With its recent broad ruling overturning a Texas law banning sodomy and affirming that gays are entitled to a right of privacy, the Supreme Court has put the issue of gay marriage on the political agenda.
Conservative Republicans, including President Bush, have been vocal opponents of gay marriage. Senator Bill Frist, the Republican leader, recently advocated a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
At a news briefing today, Dr. Frist reminded reporters of the Defense of Marriage Act, which President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, signed into law.
"The restatement of that," Dr. Frist said, "is that marriage is very simple: a union between one man and one woman, not two men or three men or four men, or one man or one woman or two women, three women, or three women and three men. It's not that. It's one man, one woman. It's what the law of the land is. I will support that."
The question of marriage may be trickier for Democrats, who have been strong supporters of equal rights for gays but who do not want to alienate social moderates.
At one point today, Mr. Kerry, who voted against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, a year in which he was up for re-election, remarked that "marriage is viewed as a union between men and women." When the remark drew hisses, he interjected, "That is a historical, cultural view." When the crowd hissed again, Mr. Kerry simply shrugged and said, "That's my opinion."
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