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Bloomberg News: Gay Clinton backers defect to Obama, eroding her base

By Kim Chipman, Bloomberg News

Hillary Clinton cemented years of goodwill with gays in 2000, when she walked in New York's Pride Parade.

``Having the first lady march was enormously powerful,'' said Representative Barney Frank, one of two openly gay members of Congress, both of whom are backing Clinton. ``I've never seen such a strong emotional outpouring.''

Now some gay voters, who have been among Clinton's most stalwart supporters and helped her defeat Barack Obama in Democratic presidential primaries earlier this month, may be drifting toward the Illinois senator, according to political activists and campaign officials.

``Clinton probably is still a little bit ahead of Obama among leadership in the community,'' said Steve Elmendorf, a Clinton supporter and lobbyist with ties to the gay and lesbian communities. ``They have a longer and deeper relationship with her than Obama, but he has a good record,'' said Elmendorf, deputy campaign manager for Democrat John Kerry's 2004 presidential bid.

``Obama has presented more detailed position papers on gay and lesbian issues than Clinton,'' said David Mixner, 61, a writer and activist who helped longtime friend Bill Clinton win over the gay and lesbian vote during the 1992 presidential race and who supported both of Hillary Clinton's successful Senate races in New York.

`The Young Reformer'

This time, Mixner is backing Obama. The Clintons have become ``a machine, and Obama's the young reformer,'' said Mixner, who joined Obama's campaign after initially supporting former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, 54, who dropped out of the Democratic race last month.

Musician Melissa Etheridge, who came out as a lesbian in 1993 at President Bill Clinton's Triangle Ball, the first ever inaugural event for gay men and lesbians, said earlier this month that she is backing Obama.

Hollywood mogul David Geffen, a one-time supporter of Bill Clinton, also is backing Obama. The openly gay Geffen, co- founder of the DreamWorks SKG movie studio, held a $1.3 million fundraiser for Obama last year.

Star Backers

Clinton backers include professional tennis player Billie Jean King; Eileen Chaiken, producer and creator of the ``L Word,'' a Showtime television series about lesbians; and Bruce Cohen, producer of movies including Oscar-winning ``American Beauty.''

Clinton's support among gay voters helped her hold her own against Obama, 46, in the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday contests. In California, the most populous state, 63 percent of people identifying themselves as a gay man or lesbian voted for Clinton, according to exit polls. In New York, she drew gay support of 59 percent.

Since then, Clinton has lost 11 consecutive contests to Obama, who according to exit polls has cut into her base of support among single women, Latinos and blue-collar workers.

While exit-poll data on gay and lesbian voters aren't available in many of the states Obama has won, he scored victories in gay neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., and Madison, Wisconsin. He also won San Francisco County and edged out Clinton in Hillcrest, the gay hub of San Diego.

`Proven' Support

Clinton aides reject the notion that Obama is winning over gay backers.

``We think our support in the community is very strong and it continues to be proven,'' campaign spokesman Jin Chon said.

To keep her candidacy afloat, Clinton needs victories March 4 in Texas -- and particularly in the large gay communities in Houston and Dallas -- and Ohio, which has the sixth-largest gay and lesbian population in the U.S.

Obama got a potential boost in Texas today as the Houston GLBT Political Caucus PAC, which claims to be the oldest gay and lesbian civil rights group in the South, endorsed the Illinois senator. The backing marks the first time the organization has endorsed a presidential candidate.

``It was a tough decision,'' said spokesman Jack Valinksi, who said the group held interviews with both Obama and Clinton earlier this month. ``The both scored very well on the issues, and both have good track records in the GLBT community.''

The decision of the group's board to go with Obama came down in part to electability, Valinksi said.

``There was somewhat of a feeling that Obama will help get other people elected on our state and local ballots because of the wave of young and new voters he's drawing into the process,'' he said.

Oppose Same-Sex Marriage

Clinton, 60, and Obama oppose same-sex marriages while supporting civil unions. A major difference between the candidates is that Obama supports full repeal of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, a law signed by Bill Clinton -- under pressure from a Republican-dominated Congress -- that prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriages and permits states to do the same. Hillary Clinton wants to roll back only part of the law.

``That's a big deal,'' said Eric Stern, who joined Obama's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender policy-advisory group after heading former candidate Edwards's gay steering committee. More than half of the members of that 49-member group are now backing Obama, Stern said.

Defense of Marriage

While many gay and lesbian voters remain loyal Clinton supporters, Mixner said, others remain angry over her previous support of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Some also still tie her to the military's ``don't ask, don't tell'' policy instituted during her husband's presidency, which reversed a campaign pledge he made to allow gays to serve openly.

Obama, meanwhile, prompted anger from gay-rights activists when he invited gospel singer Donnie McClurkin, who has called homosexuality a sin, to perform at a fundraiser last October. Obama later denounced McClurkin's views.

Tobias Wolff, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia who heads Obama's national gay- policy committee, said inviting McClurkin was ``a mistake, but nothing more complicated than a mistake, and one that Obama responded to.''

On the eve of last month's Martin Luther King Day, Obama called on blacks to begin examining attitudes toward gays and lesbians.

``If we are honest with ourselves, we'll acknowledge that our own community hasn't always been true to King's vision of a beloved community,'' he said Jan. 20 at King's Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

Seeking Gay Voters

Mixner said he probably would have endorsed Obama anyway, ``but that speech made it easier.'' At a Beaumont, Texas, town- hall meeting yesterday, Obama said he has heard people in the black community and churches ``saying things that I don't think are very Christian with respect to people who are gay and lesbian.''

Both campaigns are targeting gay voters in the showdown Texas and Ohio primaries. In Texas, Clinton support still runs strong, said Jesse Garcia, 36, head of the Stonewall Democrats of Dallas, the national gay and lesbian organization's biggest chapter in the state and the third-largest in the country.

``There's a real allegiance to Hillary,'' said Garcia, whose group endorsed Clinton last week.

In Ohio, meanwhile, Clinton's campaign formally launched a statewide committee this week to spearhead get-out-the-vote efforts in gay areas of Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus.

Obama has countered with full-page advertisements in gay publications in Texas and Ohio. The message is being heard, said Patrick King, 44, a private nurse from Houston who cared for the late Lloyd Bentsen, the former senator and Bill Clinton's first Treasury secretary.

``I was with Hillary until I heard Obama speak on TV about a month ago,'' King said. ``I thought, `Wow, this guy is really sincere.'''

To contact the reporters on this story: Kim Chipman in Washington at [email protected] .

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