The impromptu debate, over light beers and dirty martinis, was at once mundane and remarkable. Provoked by a reporter, four middle-aged men at a Greenwich Village gay bar made fiery pitches for the Democratic presidential front-runners. Two backed Sen. Barack Obama, one argued for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and a third made an emotional plea for the cause of John Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina.

“Edwards is the only one who really cares about the underdog,” one of the men, Farid Martinez, 41, a clothing designer from Brooklyn, shouted above the din at the bar, the Monster. His friend Edmund Taylor, 37, disagreed, and nearly sputtered with rage: “The guy is a millionaire lawyer obsessed with his hair. Obama is the only one who can really transform this country.”

What was notable about the exchange last week was what was not mentioned: the word “gay.”

For the first time in two decades, gay voters find themselves in an unusual, if happy, predicament. The three leading Democrats have staked out similar positions on issues that resonate with gay men and lesbians. Although none of the three candidates back gay marriage, they all support same-sex civil unions and say they would fight to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. And each of them says he or she would champion a federal anti-discrimination law that would protect lesbians and gay men.

“You would need a magnifying glass to see any real or substantive differences between the three candidates,” said Alan Van Capelle, the executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender civil rights group in New York.

The Republican slate is a different story. All of the candidates hold opposite positions from the Democrats on those matters, and although gay rights have not dominated the Republican contest so far, if past elections are any guide, they will become an issue after the primaries, political strategists say.

For the moment, however, gay voters in New York are looking past the issues that have long guided them toward a candidate. They are talking about the conflict in Iraq, universal health care and whether it is more important to have a president with experience or exuberance.

“I think there’s also a lot of excitement over having someone other than George Bush in the White House,” said Matthew W. Carlin, president of the Stonewall Democratic Club, a gay political group that endorsed Clinton in October. “And there’s a feeling that people could be happy with any of the Democrats.”

In what many gay leaders described as a fairly momentous occasion, Clinton, Obama and Edwards showed up at a forum in August sponsored by the gay cable channel Logo and talked about the bravery of gay soldiers, adoption rights for same-sex couples and the problems faced by homeless gay teenagers. All three candidates employ gay strategists at the national and state levels, and in the two weeks leading up to the New York primary on Feb. 5, representatives from each campaign said they planned to concentrate on the state’s gay vote through mailings and rallies.

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