GOP candidates try to look moderate

After spending eight minutes discussing gay-related issues Saturday night, the six remaining major candidates for the Republican presidential nomination were asked about the issues once again Sunday morning. Frontrunner Mitt Romney said he would not suggest that gays don’t have “full rights” but continued to oppose allowing gays to obtain a marriage license. Challenger Rick Santorum said he would be “a voice in speaking out for making sure that every person in America, gay or straight, is treated with respect and dignity and has equality of opportunity.” And second-place contender Ron Paul urged candidates to stop referring to “gay rights,” as if such a thing exists separate and different from civil rights generally.

After spending eight minutes discussing gay-related issues Saturday night, the six remaining major candidates for the Republican presidential nomination were asked about the issues once again Sunday morning. Frontrunner Mitt Romney said he would not suggest that gays don’t have “full rights” but continued to oppose allowing gays to obtain a marriage license. Challenger Rick Santorum said he would be “a voice in speaking out for making sure that every person in America, gay or straight, is treated with respect and dignity and has equality of opportunity.” And second-place contender Ron Paul urged candidates to stop referring to “gay rights,” as if such a thing exists separate and different from civil rights generally.

“Governor Romney and Senator Santorum today provided thoughtful and constructive answers to the questions they were asked about gay Americans,” said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese. “If only they had been that thoughtful when they crafted their various policy positions.”

The January 8 event was a nationally televised debate hosted by NBC’s Meet the Press with the same six candidates who participated in ABC’s nationally televised debate January 7. Both debates were staged before an audience in New Hampshire. The gay-related discussion took up about five minutes of the 90-minute program.

Rick Santorum, who has been virtually silent about his anti-gay positions since his surprise success in Iowa, was the first to bring the issue up Sunday morning, in the first few minutes of the event. He referred to frontrunner Mitt Romney’s support for equal rights for gays when Romney ran against incumbent Senator Ted Kennedy for the U.S. Senate in 1994.

The question to Santorum, from Meet the Press host David Gregory, was, “Why shouldn’t Governor Romney be the nominee? What’s disqualifying in your judgment?”

Santorum first criticized Romney for bailing out as governor of Massachusetts after only one term. Then, he criticized Romney for, in 1994, losing by almost 20 points to Kennedy in the Senate race.

“Why? Because at the end of that campaign,” said Santorum, “he wouldn’t stand up for conservative principles, he ran from Ronald Reagan, and he said he was going to be to the left of Ted Kennedy on gay rights, on abortion, on a whole host of other issues. We want someone that, when the time gets tough– and it will in this election – we want someone who’s going to stand up and fight for the conservative principles, not bail out and not run, and not run to the left of Ted Kennedy.”

Later in the debate, NBC Boston reporter Andy Hiller tried to tackle Romney on his 1994 statement during the Senate campaign. He read Romney’s quote to Bay Windows, a Boston gay newspaper, in which he said, “I think the gay community needs more support from the Republican party, and I would be a voice in the Republican party to foster anti-discrimination efforts.”

“How have you stood up for gay rights,” asked Hiller, “and when have you used your voice to influence Republicans on this issue?”

“Andy, as you know, I don’t discriminate,” said Romney, “and the appointments that I made as governor of Massachusetts, a member of my cabinet was gay. I appointed people to the bench, regardless of their sexual orientation, made it very clear that we should not discriminate in hiring policies, in legal policies. At the same time, from the very beginning, in 1994, I said to the gay community, ‘I do not favor same-sex marriage. I oppose same-sex marriage,’ and that has been my view. But, if people are looking for someone who will discriminate against gays or will in any way suggest that people who have different sexual orientation don’t have full rights in this country, they won’t find that in me.”

“When’s the last time you stood up and spoke out for increasing gay rights,” said Hiller.

“Right now,” said Romney. The audience laughed and applauded.

They laughed again when Hiller turned his question to Santorum.

“Senator Santorum, would you be a voice for gay rights in the party?” asked Hiller.

“I would be a voice in speaking out for making sure that every person in America, gay or straight, is treated with respect and dignity and has equality of opportunity,” said Santorum. “That does not mean that I would agree with certain things that the gay community would like to do to change laws with respect to marriage, with respect to adoption, and things like that. So, you can be respectful –this is the beautiful thing about this country. James Madison called the First Amendment …the perfect remedy –and that is that people of all different backgrounds –diversity, opinions, faith –can come into the public square and can be heard. And can be heard in a way that’s respectful of everybody else. But just because you don’t agree with someone’s desire to change the law doesn’t mean you don’t like them, or hate them, or that you want to discriminate against them, but you’re trying to promote things that you think are best for society. And I do so, and I think that if you watched the town hall meetings that I’ve been doing all over New Hampshire, I do so in a respectful tone, I listen to the other side, I let them make their arguments, and then we do so in a very respectful way. And you know what, we may not agree. That’s why we leave it open to the public to be able to elect members of Congress and the Senate and the President who support their ideas.”

“What if you had a son who came to you and said he was gay?” asked Hiller.

Without hesitation, Santorum, who has four sons, the oldest of whom is 18, said, “I would love him as much as the second before he said it. And I would try to do everything I can to be as good a father to him as possible.”

The audience applauded.

“Both candidates say they oppose discrimination yet they’re also opposed to laws that would be make it illegal to fire LGBT people,” said HRC President Solmonese. “Both candidates profess inclusion, yet they also want to deny patriotic Americans the right to defend their country. You can’t say one thing simply because it sounds good but yet continue to act in a manner that is completely at odds with that rhetoric.”

Santorum’s comments begged a number of questions. For instance, would a “good father” deride a gay child’s desire to serve in the military as being a “tragic social experiment.” Is it “respectful” of gay citizens to equate their desire to marry with incest, adultery, and polygamy, as Santorum has done repeatedly?

Interestingly, Santorum’s comments Sunday sounded very much like comments Romney made in that 1994 interview with Bay Windows. In that interview, Romney said, “…our society should allow people the freedom to make their own choices and live by their own beliefs. People of integrity don’t force their beliefs on others, they make sure that others can live by different beliefs they may have. That’s the great thing about this country: it was founded to allow people to follow beliefs of their own conscience. I will work and have worked to fight discrimination and to assure to each American equal opportunity.”

Later in Sunday’s debate, second-place challenger Ron Paul said, in a discussion of entitlements, interjected that he doesn’t like to use the term “gay rights,” as had been used by Romney and Santorum.

“I don’t like to use those terms –gay rights, women’s rights, minority rights, religious rights,” said Paul. “There’s only one type of right. It’s your right to your liberty. And I think it causes divisiveness when we see people in groups. Because for too long, we punish groups, so the answer then was, ‘Well, let’s relieve them by giving them affirmative action.’ So, I think both are wrong, if you think in terms of individuals and protect every single individual.”

Jon Huntsman, too, chastised candidates for playing “the blame game” in referring to gays and unions.

“Everybody’s got something nasty to say,” said Huntsman. “You know what the people of this country are waiting for…they want a leader who is going to unify, who’s going to bring us together. Because, at the end of the day, that’s what leadership is all about. It’s not about taking on different groups and vilifying them for whatever reason. It’s about projecting a vision for a more hopeful tomorrow.”

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