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Michael Brandy, Deseret News
Tim Bridgewater, left, Leonard Fabiano, Sen. Bob Bennett, Randy Eagar, David Chiu and Jeremy Friedbaum listen during a debate in the Union Building at the University of Utah.

SALT LAKE CITY — A few years ago, few would have imagined that Utah's Republican U.S. Senate candidates would fight each other for votes from gay activists. But they did on Wednesday, attending a debate organized by the gay rights group Log Cabin Republicans.

That group figures about 10 percent of delegates to the upcoming state convention are either Log Cabin Republicans or associate themselves closely with its stands — making it a voting bloc that candidates in a tight race cannot ignore.

About 100 people attended the debate it sponsored at the University of Utah.

"Two years ago, we had six delegates that we knew about," said Utah Log Cabin Republicans Vice President James Humphreys. "This year, we are well over 200, thanks to a lot of hard work to get our supporters to the caucuses." He adds he is calling other delegates to identify supporters among them and figures he may find 350 by the May 8 state convention.

"Not all of them are gay," but he said they support the group's philosophy of limited government, concern about fiscal matters and a desire for less interference in personal lives — including gay rights.

Besides working to get its members to caucuses, Humphreys said another reason the group may have so many delegates this year is because of a "fundamental shift in the level of tolerance that the rising generation has," and because many new delegates elected are young "and have more of a philosophy of live and let live. It's different than their grandparents' generation."

Six of eight GOP Senate candidates or their representatives attended the debate: Sen. Bob Bennett, Tim Bridgewater, David Chiu, Leonard Fabiano and Jeremy Friedbaum. Mike Lee had planned to attend but was sick. Merrill Cook did not appear, although Log Cabin Republicans reported he said he would come.

Friedbaum made an interesting attack given his audience: he said many gay delegates likely were elected illegally. He said the party asked all caucuses to read the state GOP platform and required that anyone who wanted to run for delegate and disagreed with a plank to state that publicly.

Friedbaum said the GOP platform makes clear that the party favors defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and if gay delegates disagree with that and didn't state it, they were elected improperly.

Bennett made clear he also is for defining marriage as between a man and a woman but said if the Supreme Court ever overturned that, he would respect the decision and not attempt to overturn it.

Bennett also said that if the Pentagon suggests overturning its "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays serving, that he would support that — and not try to substitute his own opinions on what is best for military unit cohesion.

Randy Eagar, husband of Bennett challenger Cherilyn Eagar, said in her behalf that she also supports marriage as being between a man and a woman but supports other gay rights — and once ran a New York company where a majority of her employees were gay.

On other questions about discrimination, all candidates said they believe that discrimination exists.

All agreed that the federal government should try to minimize discrimination, except for Fabiano, who said, "It's my right to discriminate if I want to." All agreed that affirmative action should be ended.

The candidates debated more when asked if Congress should interfere with personal actions as long as they do not affect others.

Bridgewater said that should be left to the states. Bennett said that philosophy allowed Missouri to expel Mormons, and the federal government should ensure basic rights of all. Chiu said the actions that do not impact others are rare.

Much of the debate had little to do directly with gay rights. That included questions about foreign policy (all but Fabiano favored remaining in Afghanistan for now), budget earmarks (only Bennett defended them as a way for Congress to control spending decisions instead of President Barack Obama), and immigration.

e-mail: lee@desnews.com