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Biden, Palin
Debate Same-Sex Marriage

Biden, Palin
Debate Same-Sex Marriage

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As Alaska governor Sarah Palin and Delaware senator Joe Biden sparred over same-sex unions in their first and only debate Thursday night, one thing was clear: They both oppose gay marriage. But when Biden delved deeper into equal rights and protections for gay couples, Palin didn't take the bait.

Do Sen. Joe Biden and Gov. Sarah Palin agree on the rights of same-sex couples? That may have been the impression of some viewers based on the exchange they had during the first and only vice-presidential debate Thursday night.

It started when moderator Gwen Ifill asked Senator Biden if he supported providing benefits for same-sex couples, as they currently do for partners of state employees in Alaska.

"Absolutely," Biden said. "Do I support granting same-sex benefits? Absolutely, positively. Look, in an Obama-Biden administration, there will be absolutely no distinction from a constitutional standpoint or a legal standpoint between a same-sex and a heterosexual couple.

Biden then moved beyond benefits to detail the rights he and Sen. Barack Obama believe gay couples should have. "The fact of the matter is that under the Constitution we should be granted -- same-sex couples should be able to have visitation rights in hospitals, joint ownership of property, life insurance policies, etc. That's only fair," he said. "It's what the Constitution calls for. And so we do support it. We do support making sure that committed couples in a same-sex marriage are guaranteed the same constitutional benefits as it relates to their property rights, their rights of visitation, their rights to insurance, their rights of ownership as heterosexual couples do."

At that point, Ifill turned to Governor Palin and asked if she supported extending Alaska's policy of providing same-sex partner benefits to the rest of the country.

"Well, not if it goes closer and closer towards redefining the traditional definition of marriage between one man and one woman. And unfortunately, that's sometimes where those steps lead," Palin responded, adding that her answer shouldn't be taken to mean that she would "be anything but tolerant of adults in America choosing their partners, choosing relationships that they deem best for themselves."

But in contrast to Biden, rather than affirming that same-sex couples need certain protections in order to ensure that they are afforded similar rights to straight couples, Palin simply asserted that she and John McCain would never purposely deprive gay couples of those rights.

"No one would ever propose, not in a McCain-Palin administration, to do anything to prohibit, say, visitations in a hospital or contracts being signed, negotiated between parties," Palin said, adding, "But I will tell Americans straight up that I don't support defining marriage as anything but between one man and one woman."?

Ifill redirected to Biden: "Senator, do you support gay marriage?"

"No. [Neither] Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage. We do not support that," Biden said.

Biden then circled back to the concept of equal rights, trying to pin Palin down on whether she believed gay couples should have the same constitutional rights -- presumably via civil unions or domestic partnerships -- as heterosexual couples.

"The bottom line though is, and I'm glad to hear the governor, I take her at her word, obviously, that she thinks there should be no civil rights distinction, none whatsoever, between a committed gay couple and a committed heterosexual couple," Biden said. "If that's the case, we really don't have a difference."

"Is that what you said?" asked Ifill.

But Palin stuck to the definition of marriage rather than engaging the topic of constitutional rights. "Your question to him was whether he supported gay marriage and my answer is the same as his and it is that I do not," she said.

Ifill concluded, "Wonderful. You agree. On that note, let's move to foreign policy."

The nuanced discussion may well have been lost on average viewers, who easily could have walked away thinking that the two candidates hold essentially the same view: They do not support gay marriage. But Senator Biden argued that same-sex couples should be treated equally under the law and afforded all the same rights and responsibilities as straight married couples.

Governor Palin did not clarify whether she agreed with Biden on that point. Based on past statements, one might reasonably deduce that she does not. Although she did veto a bill in Alaska that would have denied health benefits to partners of state employees, she did so at the urging of her attorney general, who argued that signing the bill would have been a violation of the state constitution as interpreted by Alaska's highest court. At the time, Palin said she personally disagreed with providing same-sex partner benefits but was legally compelled as governor to kill the bill.

Senator Obama supports civil unions that provide equal rights and responsibilities to gay couples. Senator McCain has indicated that he is opposed to civil unions -- or any agreement -- that nears the legal equivalent of marriage.

Overall, the discourse around gay marriage was reminiscent of other portions of the debate: Joe Biden generally went into greater depth on the issues and Sarah Palin usually stuck to a certain set of talking points.

Most pundits agreed that while Governor Palin exceeded expectations, Senator Biden demonstrated greater fluency with the subject matter.

Early polls suggested that viewers agreed: CNN found debate watchers thought Biden won the night by a margin of 51% to 36%; CBS surveyed uncommitted voters, who favored Biden over Palin 46% to 21%, with 33% of them calling it a draw.

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