Reporting from New York — This was Carl Paladino's kind of parade. Marching bands. Italian and American flags. Not a bikini-clad, gyrating gay guy in sight.
Not that he has anything against gays, Paladino, New York's Republican gubernatorial candidate, said Monday for the umpteenth time as he struggled to smooth over comments he had made a day earlier.
"I unequivocally support gay rights. Unequivocally," said Paladino, clutching an American flag and marching up Fifth Avenue in New York's annual Columbus Day Parade. But Paladino repeated his view, expressed earlier Monday on ABC and NBC, that children should be shielded from gay activities, especially their parades.
"Those guys in the gay pride parade who like to wear the little Speedos and do their grinding motion up there — children should not see that," Paladino said, wagging his finger for emphasis and calling his opponent, Democrat Andrew Cuomo, "wrong" for taking part in New York City's gay pride march and letting his children watch it.
He denied that his comments Sunday night to Orthodox Jewish leaders — saying children should not be "brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option" — amounted to homophobia or insensitivity toward gays. They simply mirror the teachings of the Catholic Church, the Catholic candidate said, adding that if Cuomo disagreed, "he should go see a priest."
This isn't the first time Paladino, a millionaire businessman with "tea party" backing, has been in trouble since joining the race to replace Gov. David Paterson. In the spring, Paladino apologized for forwarding racist and pornographic e-mails, some of which mocked President Obama.
He then stunned the Republican Party by going on to crush its favored candidate, Rick Lazio, in the primary. But the most recent Marist Poll shows Cuomo with a double-digit lead over Paladino.
The Republican's comments came at a sensitive time in New York City, where the grisly torture of two 17-year-old boys and a man thought to be gay has dominated headlines and been denounced by political leaders. On Sunday, eight of the nine alleged gang members suspected of taking part in the attacks this month appeared in court. The ninth was arrested Monday.
In a separate incident Oct. 3, two men beat up a man at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village. The two have been charged with assault as a hate crime and attempted robbery. And last month, a student at Rutgers University in New Jersey committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge after authorities said two students secretly filmed him in a gay sexual encounter and broadcast it on the Internet.
David Catalfamo, a political analyst who served as an advisor to New York's last Republican governor, George Pataki, said the uproar over Paladino was not only a setback to Republicans in the New York gubernatorial race.
"It's embarrassing to the party and is threatening to undermine Republican gains in November," he said. Catalfamo urged Paladino to go "Obama-style," sticking to a Teleprompter and a script "that is all jobs and the economy."
Cuomo, the state's attorney general, called Paladino's comments "reckless in light of the recent violence we've had." In a separate statement, he said the remarks showed "stunning homophobia" on Paladino's part.
The Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based gay advocacy group, said Paladino had made himself the "poster boy" for divisive leadership.
"Carl Paladino is either homophobic or stunningly tone deaf to the needs of the community," the group's president, Joe Solmonese, said in a statement.
Even among Republicans, Paladino seemed to be emerging as someone best kept at a distance. The head of the state's Republican Committee, Ed Cox, issued a terse statement saying in part: "We condemn any remarks that can be construed as homophobic."
It went on to urge voters to focus on issues Paladino had addressed last week, such as the economy and taxes. The Republican candidate for attorney general, Daniel Donovan, called Paladino's statements offensive.
Paladino, though, denied that his comments could foster anti-gay sentiments and defended himself by pointing out that he had crossed off from the prepared remarks Sunday the following sentence: "There is nothing to be proud of in being a dysfunctional homosexual."
"It's unacceptable. … I crossed it out," Paladino said on NBC's "Today" show. He said he did not know who had written the phrase.
On ABC, Paladino said he had a gay nephew — "a wonderful boy" — and understood the discrimination gays faced.
"I have no reservations whatsoever about gays, except for gay marriage," Paladino said. On NBC, he vowed that gays could hold jobs and play important roles in his administration if he were elected.
"Which roles?" interviewer Matt Lauer asked.
"Wherever their expertise might be, we'll put them in our government," Paladino said.