Jon Huntsman Jr. answers a question during a Republican presidential debate… (Elise Amendola / Associated…)
Reporting from Goffstown, N.H. — Rick Santorum's new status in the top tier of the Republican race for president has also raised the profile of gay marriage as a major issue. In tonight's debate, the candidates largely agreed in favoring a narrow definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.
The first question posed to the candidates dealt with how same-sex couples should go about recognizing a committed, long-term relationship if marriage was not an option available to them.
Newt Gingrich said marriage was a "sacrament" long recognized in history as being between a man and a woman.
"It is a huge jump from being understanding and considerate and concerned, which we should be, to saying we therefore are going to institute the sacrament of marriage as though it has no basis," he said. "It's something worth protecting."
Santorum was asked what should happen to couples who have married in New Hampshire since it became state law. Santorum said marriage was a federal issue.
"We have to have one law. We can't have someone married in one state and not married in another. Once we are successful in establishing that, then this issue becomes moot," he said.
Mitt Romney said he'd support domestic partnership benefits for gay couples, but stopped short of gay marriage or even civil unions.
"To say that marriage is something other than the relationship between a man and a woman, I think, is a mistake," he said. "The reason for that is not that we want to discriminate against people or to suggest that gay couples are not just as loving and can't also raise children well. But it's instead a recognition that, for society as a whole, that the nation presumably would be better off if children are raised in a setting where there's a male and a female."
Santorum has faced heat from voters this week on gay marriage. On Friday he said that even a father who "is in jail and has abandoned" his family is better for a child than two gay parents.
Jon Huntsman Jr. broke with the field by stating his support for civil unions.
"On marriage, I'm a traditionalist. I think that ought to be saved for one man and one woman, but I believe that civil unions are fair. And I think it brings a level of dignity to relationships," he said.
As the discussion winded down, Gingrich said the line of questioning showed "bias," reprising the role of media critic he had enjoyed in many past debates.
"You don't hear the opposite question asked," he said, raising the issue of the Catholic church being forced to close adoption services because it won't accept gay marriage, among others. "The bigotry question goes both ways. And there's a lot more anti-Christian bigotry today than there is concerning the other side. And none of it gets covered by the news media."