Jon Huntsman stood by his support for civil unions and Rick Santorum expressed concern for gay rights in Iran, but for the most part, the Republican presidential debate unfolded as anticipated Thursday as candidates opposed marriage equality.
"I think this nation can do a better job when it comes to equality," said Huntsman, a former Utah governor and ambassador to China, in response to Fox News Channel anchor Chris Wallace, who asked whether his more moderate stance puts him in the "wrong party." Still, he said that he believes in "traditional marriage" and, when pressed on whether his support for civil unions in the states makes him "right" while the other candidates and majority of Republican Iowa caucusgoers polled are "wrong," the candidate, who is not competing in the straw poll or the Iowa caucus next year, said, "They are not wrong."
Huntsman made his debut appearance in the third nationally televised Republican debate with seven other hopefuls at Iowa State University ahead of the Ames Straw Poll set for Saturday. Economic concerns dominated the two-hour, often contentious discussion, but when talk turned to social issues in the latter half, major candidates expressed varying degrees of interest in restricting marriage rights for same-sex couples. The moderators did not ask about any LGBT-specific issues beyond marriage.
Congressman Ron Paul of Texas stated a personal belief in marriage between men and women only, although the libertarian-leaning candidate said that the issue should be left to the states to decide.
"I think marriage should be between a single man and a single woman and that the federal government shouldn't be involved," he said. "If you have to have regulations, let the state governments do it."
That position drew criticism from former U.S. senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who argued that the logic of Paul's stance would allow states to decide in favor of "polygamy." The avowed opponent of marriage equality also attacked Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota from the same angle, claiming that she demonstrated an inconsistent approach to the Tenth Amendment and states' rights.
"Michele Bachmann says that she would go in and fight health care being imposed by states, but she wouldn't go in and fight marriage being imposed by the states," said Santorum. "That would be OK. We have Ron Paul saying 'Oh, whatever the states want to do under the Tenth Amendment is fine.' So if the states want to pass polygamy, that's fine."
Santorum positioned himself as the most aggressive fighter against marriage equality, where he proudly noted his role in the campaign last year to recall three Iowa Supreme Court justices who joined the unanimous ruling for marriage equality in 2009.
"We can't have 50 marriage laws," he said. "I will come to the states and fight" against "transforming marriage."
Santorum and Bachmann have signed pledges against marriage equality from both the Family Leader in Iowa and the National Organization for Marriage. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney also have signed the NOM pledge.
Asked about the recent vote in the New York state legislature for marriage equality, Romney, who is not competing in the Ames Straw Poll but plans to compete in the Iowa caucus, said he believes the federal government should decide the issue because ""people move from state to state" in modern society. He added that he believed the decision should be for a federal amendment to the constitution that would define marriage as the union between a man and a woman.
"Marriage is a status, not an activity that goes on within the walls of a state," he said, raising concerns about the rights of children and divorce proceedings across states with different marriage laws. "And as a result, our marriage status relationships should be constant across the country."
Bachmann reiterated her support for a federal marriage amendment.
"I support the federal marriage amendment," said Michele Bachmann. "As president, I will not nominate activist judges."
The debate also included Pawlenty, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, and businessman Herman Cain, but Fox News excluded gay Republican candidate Fred Karger, who claims he met all the conditions for qualifying. Also absent but looming large over the field was Texas governor Rick Perry, who plans to announce his candidacy Saturday, potentially stealing the spotlight from the straw poll.
In perhaps the most surprising twist of the debate related to LGBT rights, Santorum, who pledged to fight against marriage equality at home, criticized Iran during the foreign policy portion because it "tramples the rights of gays."
Watch the following compilation of the candidates' statement about marriage from ThinkProgress.