The majority of the GOP presidential contenders who spoke about LGBT issues at Thursday night's debate in Ames, Iowa did not come out in favor of gay rights. There were only two exceptions. One was no surprise: Jon Huntsman, who supported civil unions as governor of Utah, spoke out in favor of them again, adding, "I think this nation can do a better job when it comes to equality." The other was rather unexpected: Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who has compared gay marriage to bestiality and supports a state's right to ban anal sex, said that Iran's "mullahcracy...tramples on the rights of gays."

Here's a look at where the other candidates from last night's debate stand on gay rights (with a tip of the hat to Think Progress):

Michele Bachmann: The congresswoman from Minnesota has built her career on opposing gay rights in the name of God, and it's been widely reported now that her husband runs a clinic linked to ex-gay reparative therapy. At the debate, she reiterated her support for a federal amendment to ban same-sex marriage and said she "would not nominate activist judges who would legislate from the bench."

Herman Cain: The former Godfather's Pizza CEO doesn't support a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and has said he would appoint a gay person to his cabinet (provided they're not also Muslim, presumably). But he thinks homosexuality is a sin and doesn't support gay marriage either.

Newt Gingrich: After the Iowa Supreme Court struck down the state's gay marriage ban in 2009, the former speaker of the house helped bankroll a successful effort to oust three of the justices from the bench. He supports a federal marriage amendment to beat back "gay and secular fascism."

Ron Paul: He's a hero among libertarians but doesn't endorse the Libertarian Party's support for equal marriage rights. At the debate, he said that he thinks "marriages should be between a single man and a single woman and that the federal government shouldn’t be involved," although he supports the federal Defense of Marriage Act under the guise of states' rights.

Tim Pawlenty: The former Minnesota governor claims that he's a fan of Lady Gaga, an outspoken gay-rights activist. But as governor, he opposed a same-sex end-of-life rights bill. He also supports a federal marriage amendment.

Mitt Romney: In 1994, during his time as governor of Massachusetts, Romney penned a letter to the state's Log Cabin Republicans supporting gay rights. "We must make equality for gays and lesbians a mainstream concern," he wrote then. But now, he says that he supports a marriage amendment. "Marriage is a status. It’s not an activity that goes on within the walls of a state," he said at the debate.

Rick Santorum, take two: Sure, Santorum may support protecting gays from Iranian hardliners. But at the debate he warned that states' gay marriage laws were examples of the "10th Amendment run amok," in the process comparing the laws to forced sterlization and accusing Ron Paul of supporting polygamy.

And the no-shows: Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who's expected to announce his presidential bid Saturday, supported a law to ban gay sex in his state. Former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer supports the Defense of Marriage Act but says it's okay if a state chooses to legalize gay marriage. Obscure Detroit Rep. Thaddeus McCotter has voted for marriage amendments. Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson supports civil unions. And the openly gay (and, save for one yard sign I saw yesterday in Ames, nearly invisible) Fred Karger, not surprisingly, supports gay marriage rights.

Think Progress compiled a two-minute video of the anti-gay rhetoric on display at the debate:

The announcement last week that the Obama administration will require health insurance plans to cover preventative health care for women at no additional cost elicited whoops of joy from females all over the country. The idea that contraception will be fully covered was an especially celebrated point; Mother Jones blogger Jen Quraishi heralded the occasion as "a momentous day," and Jezebel happily noted that it was time to "kiss your co-pay goodbye."

Not everyone found the rule change so invigorating. That's because the new regulations contain a religious refusal clause, also known as a "conscience clause," exempting "certain religious employers" from having to cover the cost of contraception in employees' insurance plans if doing so would contradict the employer's belief system. The proposed conscience clause defines a religious employer as a nonprofit organization that "has inculcation of religious values as its purpose" and primarily employs and serves people who share its religious tenets. Religious groups say that language is far too weak and might force some religious institutions that don't want to provide birth control to women to do so anyway. Women's groups, meanwhile, are arguing that the language shouldn't be there at all.

Mitt Romney makes a campaign appearance at the Iowa State Fair.

On Saturday morning, candidates, Republican operatives, and tens of thousands of Hawkeye State voters will descend upon Ames, about forty minutes of north of Des Moines, for the first certifiably major event of the 2012 presidential campaign: The Ames Straw Poll, a non-binding election that doubles as a fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party. It is, to put it gently, something of a circus.

To its boosters, of which there are many, Ames carries with it a singular sense of urgency, a chance to measure where the candidates stand four months before the first real votes are cast. It can be what us Washington folks call a "game-changer." Sometimes. John McCain skipped the straw poll and the state entirely en route to the nomination in 2008—but Mike Huckabee’s strong second-place performance there was a sign that he was a force to be reckoned with (it also demonstrated the power of the home school movement).

Here's a quick primer:

Who will be there? The big question this time around is who won't be there. That would be former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and Texas Governor-for-life Rick Perry (also-rans Gary Johnson and Buddy Roemer, who have been excluded from virtually everything else, have other plans).

The truancy of four of the major candidates has not gone unnoticed by Iowa Republicans, who are increasingly paranoid (with some merit) that New Hampshire, South Carolina, and even Florida will surpass them in influence. Romney will be in New Hampshire instead, at a house party; Perry will be kicking off his presidential campaign in South Carolina.

How does it work? It's pretty straightforward, actually. Any Iowa resident can show up and vote, provided they have proof of Iowa residency and are willing to shell out $30 for a ticket. You can only vote once, most votes win, etc. The kicker is that, because most Iowans (and everyone else for that matter) don't want to pay $30 plus gas for a non-binding vote, the campaigns sometimes offer to cover the expenses and provide buses from the far corners of the state.

Is there ice cream? Yes. And Christian rock. In an effort to convince straw poll attendees to vote for them, candidates employ a variety of ruses, usually in the form of food, drink, and live music. Pawlenty announced long ago that he would be serving Famous Dave's barbecue, and has since expanded the operations to include frozen dairy products. Mike Huckabee, who has not endorsed a candidate, will be playing bass guitar for both Pawlenty and Herman Cain (Cain will join in on vocals; If only Huntsman were there with his keyboard). Michele Bachmann has invited country music star Randy Travis to perform on her stage (unrelatedly, or perhaps not: Travis starred in the film adaptation of John Hagee's book, Jerusalem Countdown). Rick Santorum, to the delight of Dan Savage, is bringing home-made peach jelly.

So is this just a giant circus, right? In a matter of speaking: yes.

Then why do we care? To be fair, plenty of people don't. The New Republic's Jonathan Chait captured the anti-Ames backlash pretty well on Wednesday: "It's not a test of anything. It's a racket to raise money for the Iowa GOP. It's not democratic. It's not predictive. It's just a sideshow."
There's some truth to some of that, but the dirty truth is that campaigns can sometimes be as superficial as the coverage suggests. And so, while “expectations-setting” by campaigns is often inane and sometimes insufferable, many people—notably big-money donors—still put some weight into it. No one wants to waste their money on a failing candidacy, and Ames is the first, best test.

The obvious candidate to watch is Tim Pawlenty. From the start, the former Minnesota governor has attempted to seize the mantle as of the Romney Alternative. But the last few months have instead given rise to a slew of alternative Alternatives, like Cain, Bachmann, and now Perry. Pawlenty's campaign has stated that he needs a positive showing at Ames, but his definition of what such a showing would look like has fluctuated. A strong performance by Pawlenty (say, top two) would at least validate some of the millions of dollars he's poured into Iowa over the past two months, while a poor showing would only reinforce the notion that people just aren't that into him. And that's sort of the entire point of elections.

Paul, for one, isn't downplaying the importance of the event: "We’d better do better than the last go around or I will be very disappointed," he told supporters on Thursday morning. He's playing up his credentials as a home-school advocate (as well as more niche issues, like support for the sale of raw milk) in the run-up to the vote.

How do I follow it? We'll be offering live updates here and on twitter @timothypmurphy. You can watch the speeches on C-Span. Or you can hitch a ride on one of Pawlenty’s buses and enjoy some free barbecue yourself.


Staff Sgt. James Allen conducts a dismounted patrol of the Sharana District Center bazaar with his platoon's Afghan Uniformed Police partners. Allen, a squad leader with B company, 3rd Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment, part of Task Force Blackhawk based out of Grafenwoehr, Germany, is working to build strong ties with their AUP counterparts after assuming control of Paktika Province Afghanistan earlier this month. Photo by the US Army.

Last we heard from Colbert Super PAC, the satirist Stephen Colbert's political action committee, it had nearly created a massive loophole in the nation's laws regulating money in politics. (In the end, the nation's top campaign finance cop ruled favorably for Colbert and pro-regulation groups.)

Now, with the Republican presidential candidates descending on Ames, Iowa, for that town's straw poll this weekend, Colbert Super PAC is at it again with a pair of campaign ads that are hilarious parodies of the typical pre-election spot. With Colbert as narrator, his PAC bashes outside political groups urging Iowans to write in Texas Gov. Rick Perry for the Ames Straw Poll, then tells viewers to write in "Rick Parry"—with an "a"—instead. "We want you to vote for Rick Parry, too—but not their Rick Perry, our Rick Parry," Colbert intones.

Oh, and there's some "cornography" in Colbert PAC's ad. Really. Watch for yourself:

First ad:

And the second ad:

At an Iowa State Fair appearance Thursday morning, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney responded to a heckler who was calling for increased taxes on corporations by summoning his inner John McCain. "Corporations are people, my friend," the GOP presidential candidate said. (The Washington Post's Greg Sargent has a complete transcript of the exchange.)

Romney, who won the Ames Straw Poll in 2007 but is skipping it this year, spoke for about 20 minutes at the Des Moines Register's state fair soapbox. In line with conventional wisdom that the New Hampshire primary—which, unlike the Iowa caucuses, is widely regarded as a must-win for Romney—is more focused on fiscal policy than social issues, Romney spent the entire time focused on the economy.

When former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty entered the back room for a meet-and-greet at Cronk's Café in Denison, Iowa on Wednesday afternoon, my neighbor offered a blunt assessment: "They had a much bigger crowd here Monday." That was when Herman Cain, the former Godfather's Pizza CEO, stopped by.

That's just the way things have been going for Pawlenty, who, despite more or less entering the race as soon as the last one ended at Grant Park, has been going backwards in the nation's first primary state. With three days to go until the Ames Straw Poll, Pawlenty's ratcheting up his rhetoric and taking less thinly veiled shots at his competitors. (He is also offering an enticement of a different sort to prospective straw poll attendees: free barbecue and ice cream.)

Pawlenty showed up on time, which counts for something perhaps, but, as my neighbor noted, it was hardly an overflow crowd. About 30 people showed up—restaurant staff included—mostly elderly, many of them still undecided and less than enthusiastic at the Governor's message. Pawlenty begins with the same message he closes with: Republicans need to go with the sure thing, not the flavor of the month. As he explains it, every candidate on the GOP ballot will support spending cuts, oppose abortion, and vow to appoint conservative judges; he's the only one who's actually done these things. "The hour is late, and the country is in big trouble," he said. "We need to get it done."

But the knock on Pawlenty, at least among Republicans, and there may be something to that. He speaks with a directness that his supporters would likely cast as unsparing and tough, but which can also come across as earnest and perhaps a little pleading (also: loud). He doesn't so much deliver his stump speech as paraphrase it in a long series of bullet-pointed resume items. Listen for a little while and you can start to see why his campaign sets all of his commercials to action-movie music.

There wasn't a lack of red meat. On the Environmental Protection Agency? He'd keep it (unlike Bachmann) but "the woman who runs it should be fired." On Social Security? "They running a Ponzi scheme." Responding to a question about the National Labor Relations Board's decision to intervene in a Boeing plant in South Carolina, he pulls the red card: "This isn't the Soviet Union in the 1950s. This is America." Which is true. He describes the government's purchase of treasury bills as "taking their Visa card to pay off their Discover card."

Not everyone was persuaded. "I agree with him—I mean, what's not to agree with?" said Cyrila Roberts of Dunlap, Iowa. "But does he have the strength of character and fortitude to do what he says he'll do? That's what I'm wondering." Having seen both candidates now, she's more impressed by Cain. Her top issue, she says, is "the illegals." Cain, who has promised to build a Great Wall of China-style barrier on the border along with a alligator-filled moat, would seem to have that one down. Michael Peters, a 26-year-old from Denison and one of the few young people in attendance, appreciated Pawlenty's answer to his question about Obamacare (he's against it). But he still likes Cain: "He's not so much a politician. He came down to the working man. When he was CEO of Godfather's, he came down to the working man."

After first casting himself as the alternative to Mitt Romney, Pawlenty has been successively one-upped by a series of alternatives to the alternative: first Cain, then fellow Minnesotan Rep. Michele Bachmann, and—coming soon!—Texas Gov. Rick Perry. His message now is clear: Don't make the same mistake Democrats made; go with the sure thing. The question is, is anyone listening?

Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) says the Supreme Court was wrong to knock down a Texas law that criminalized "homosexual conduct."

Dan Hirschhorn reports that former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) is continuing to hammer likely GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry on gay marriage—even after the Texas governor announced that he would support an effort to ban gay marriage nationwide:

"When someone who is a serious candidate for president is doing things that will be destructive not just for the Republican Party, but for the country, I'm going to point that out any chance I get," Santorum told POLITICO.

Santorum is upset, or at least pretend campaign-upset, that Perry told Colorado GOPers in July that New York's decision to legalize gay marriage was their right. "That's New York, and that's their business, and that's fine with me.”

But next to Santorum, Perry might be the least lgbt-friendly candidate in the race. More so than former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who warns we face an existential threat from "gay and secular fascism"; more so, even, than Rep. Michele Bachmann, who once feared that the Lion King would corrupt children because its soundtrack was created by Elton John.

So what exactly has Perry done? Well, for one, he is (still) a supporter of the Texas "homosexual conduct" statute, an archaic law that made it a crime for two consenting, unrelated adults to have sex if they were of the same gender. The law was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the landmark 2002 case Lawrence v. Texas, but, despite repeated efforts, Texas has yet to formally repeal the statute. When Perry was asked about the Lawrence case in 2002, he defended the anti-sodomy statute: "I think our law is appropriate that we have on the books." He wrote about the case in his 2011 book Fed Up, too, citing the Lawrence decision as the product of "nine oligarchs in robes" and an example of what's wrong with our judicial system. And last spring, when Perry ran for his third full term as governor, he did so on a state GOP platform that exlicitly stated "we oppose the legalization of sodomy."

The irony is that the Lawrence case was the impetus for Santorum's famous comparison of gay sex to "man on dog" relations—which, in turn, was the impetus for Santorum becoming, well, "santorum." He can try to carve out some space to the right of Rick Perry on this issue, but there's really not that much room.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) speaks at CPAC earlier this year in Washington, DC.

When the notoriously anti-gay presidential contender Rick Santorum stepped inside the Hiawatha Public Library in eastern Iowa Wednesday afternoon to explain how the Iowa Supreme Court tried to "redefine nature" by striking down a same-sex marriage ban in 2009, he begged patience: He was battling a case of laryngitis. "I don't want to lose my voice right before the debate," he said, sipping on a cup of tea from Starbucks. (Santorum was referring to Thursday night's debate in Ames, the last major all-candidate event before the city's straw poll Saturday.) But the sore throat didn't stop the former Pennsylvania senator from dishing out conservative red meat for more than an hour to two dozen mostly elderly potential straw poll supporters.


US Army Spc. Kevin Medeiros, Provincial Reconstruction Team Kabul, secures an area in Qalat City, Afghanistan, Aug. 9, 2011. US Air Force photo/Senior Airman Grovert Fuentes-Contreras.