Friday, June 1, 2007

Presidential Hopefuls Pressed on Gay Issues

Political speculation remains an art form which never seems to go out of style as indicated from this article I wrote for EDGE this week. It remains a safe bet the candidates -- former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in particular -- will continue to face difficult questions about their own records on gay rights as they outline their positions with their target constituents in the coming months. All of this political posturing will certainly provide journalists and politicos alike a multitude of new headlines and topics to discuss around the water cooler.

With the 2008 presidential campaign in overdrive, candidates from both sides of the aisle continue to stake out positions on marriage equality, hate-crimes legislation, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and other issues as they court potential voters and donors across the country. Although the first primaries and caucuses are more than six months away but skeptics, gay activists and even some politicos have already pressured White House hopefuls to define or further explain their positions on gay rights.

Former North Carolina Senator and Democratic hopeful John Edwards went on the defensive late last month after the Washington Post reported he told Democratic strategist Bob Shrum in 1998 he is "not comfortable with those people" in response to a question about gay rights. Edwards quickly dismissed the comments but has publicly maintained his opposition to marriage for same-sex couples.

Senator Hillary Clinton and other Democratic presidential hopefuls--as well as Republican former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, considered the most gay-friendly of the GOP major candidates currently in the race--also oppose marriage for same-sex couples. New York public radio host Brian Lehrer told Edge that the North Carolina native’s tone on this issue remains different than other candidates. He speculated this difference could help Edwards attract moderate voters.

"Edwards does own his personal discomfort with gay marriage in his public statements," he said. "He says he’s just not there yet unlike [other] Democrats who just say they’re not for gay marriage. This avoids getting him too far out in front of the population."

The Democratic National Committee platform officially calls upon each state to define marriage. It also opposes the FMA. The majority of Democratic candidates continue to tout their party’s line in their stump speeches and public statements on the issue.

"That federalist dance is pretty much what the leading Democratic [candidates] are doing on gay marriage," Lehrer said. "They say they oppose legal gay marriage but oppose a Constitutional ban and the Defense of Marriage Act."

As the political editor of Rollcall, a magazine that exclusively covers Capital Hill, Josh Kurtz has been watching the developing races with a knowing eye. Democrats often moderate their positions on marriage and other potentially divisive social issues which could polarize target constituencies, he said, adding that candidates cannot appear too liberal if they hope to garner support from moderate voters.

"Democrats have to move to the left during the primary season but move to the center during the general election," he said. "At this level, candidates are walking a kind of tight rope. They have to find themselves as close to the center as they can get."

Among Republicans, social conservatives continue to challenge former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s previous statements in support of gay rights. Romney famously described FMA supporters as "extremists" during his failed campaign to unseat popular incumbent Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1994. The former governor heavily courted gay and lesbian Republicans during his 2002 gubernatorial campaign.

Romney later expressed support for the FMA after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued its landmark Goodridge decision to allow marriage for same-sex couples in the commonwealth. He spearheaded the campaign in support of a proposed Constitutional amendment in the state but observers agree his own record presents a significant challenge to his campaign as he continues to position himself as a viable conservative candidate.

"It’s already a liability for his campaign," Kurtz said. "To get elected in Massachusetts, he had to present himself as a moderate on social issues. He is running away from that record as fast as he can."

Lehrer agreed. He said Romney has lost credibility among social conservatives as a result of his apparent flip flops on gay rights, abortion and other issues. "A huge challenge for him is the way he’s done a full 180 on a number of things," Lehrer said. "He has a lot of explaining to do on a lot of issues."

Social conservatives continue to question Giuliani’s record in light of his opposition of the FMA, a bill he signed into law in 1998 which extended benefits to same-sex partners of city employees and other aspects of his political and private life. Among other things, Giuliani famously shacked up with an affluent Manhattan gay couple when he moved out of the mayoral residence during a break-up with his second wife.

Kurtz said this scrutiny appears to have had little impact on the former mayor’s campaign. "Giuliani has been a little more adept at walking the right rope than Romney has," he said. "He hasn’t had a whole sale 180 degree turn on some critical social issues."

Candidates will continue to outline their positions as the first caucuses and primaries approach. Observers said the majority of voters will pay less attention to these issues during this campaign cycle. They added this dynamic could change if a state court issues a pro marriage for same-sex couples ruling or if New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg or another potential third party candidate enters the race. Bloomberg, a Republican, has very publicly bucked his party’s platform by advocating for gay marriage.

Lehrer concluded, however, that social conservatives and other potential voters will continue to focus on Iraq, health care and other issues and the candidates’ positions on them.

"Because of the gravity of the world situation and what Americans perceive as an existential threat to the country [and to our democracy], the gay marriage issue should recede in importance for people on the right this year."

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