Democratic presidential contenders Thursday sought to underscore their differences with Republicans on gay and lesbian rights, but leading...

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LOS ANGELES — Democratic presidential contenders Thursday sought to underscore their differences with Republicans on gay and lesbian rights, but leading candidates also faced sharp questions on their reluctance to embrace marriage for same-sex couples.

In a forum focusing on gay issues sponsored by a gay-rights organization and aired on a gay cable channel, Sen. Barack Obama argued that civil unions for same-sex couples wouldn’t be a “lesser thing” than marriage.

“Semantics may be important to some. From my perspective, what I’m interested [in] is making sure that those legal rights are available to people,” he said.

Obama belongs to the United Church of Christ, which supports gay marriage, but Obama has yet to go that far. “If we have a situation in which civil unions are fully enforced, are widely recognized, people have civil rights under the law, then my sense is that’s enormous progress,” the Illinois Democrat said.

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New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said the nation was on “a path to full inclusion” but added, “In my judgment, what is achievable is civil unions with full marriage rights.”

A majority of Americans oppose nationwide recognition of same-sex marriage, and only two of the Democrats support it — former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, both longshots for the nomination.

Six of the eight Democratic candidates answered questions at an event described by organizers as a milestone. It marked the first time that major presidential candidates appeared on TV specifically to address gay issues, the organizers said.

The two-hour forum was co-sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group active in Democratic politics, and Logo, a gay-oriented cable TV channel that aired the forum live.

The candidates were not on stage at the same time Thursday night. Instead, each spent more than 15 minutes taking questions separately from a four-person panel that included Joe Solmonese, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, and singer Melissa Etheridge.

Sens. Joseph Biden of Delaware and Chris Dodd of Connecticut did not attend.

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was cheered by the crowd when she alluded to the prospect for change at the White House in the 2008 election.

Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards argued that Democrats must speak out against discrimination coming from the other party. “If you stand quietly by and let it happen, what happens is it takes hold,” Edwards said.

All of the Democratic candidates support a federal ban on anti-gay job discrimination, want to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy barring gays from serving openly in the military, and support civil unions that would extend marriagelike rights to same-sex couples.

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