BOSTON (AP)—Massachusetts Democrats are faulting Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Michael Sullivan on the issue of gay marriage even as Sullivan scrambled to say he opposes a federal law that bars benefits for same-sex couples.
The clash came as a new poll found Democratic hopeful Edward Markey leading all candidates by double digit leads.
Democratic Party Chairman John Walsh said Sullivan is out of touch with Massachusetts, which became the first state to legalize gay marriage in 2004. "One issue people in Massachusetts have decided is equal marriage rights for our gay and lesbian neighbors," Walsh said.
Sullivan said Wednesday he's a "traditionalist" on marriage, believing it should be between a man and a woman.
"I don't know how controversial that is. (President Barack) Obama himself has essentially described himself as a traditionalist when it came to the definition of marriage. John Kerry, I understand, has essentially taken the same position," Sullivan said after dropping off voter signatures guaranteeing him a spot on the GOP primary ballot.
Obama and Kerry have since voiced support for gay marriage.
Later Wednesday, Sullivan's campaign issued a statement saying he believes the federal Defense of Marriage Act should be overturned. The act denies legally married gay couples a range of federal benefits available to married same-sex couples.
"I believe DOMA should be reversed and the federal government should respect those states that recognize gay marriage by providing those couples with the same level of benefits," Sullivan said in the statement.
Earlier, Sullivan was asked how he would vote as a senator on the gay marriage issue. He would say only that he would look at any future bill that came before Congress.
Sullivan also said he was proud of his record as a state and federal prosecutor, protecting people against discrimination, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation.
"I recognize that gay marriage is legal in Massachusetts," he said. "I've done nothing to undermine that. I respect the fact that there are loving relationships among same-sex people."
A challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act's definition of marriage as between a man and a woman is expected to be heard later this month by the U.S. Supreme Court.
David Wilson, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts, also faulted Sullivan. The Supreme Judicial Court ruled 4-3 in 2003 that the state's existing ban on same-sex marriages violated the Massachusetts Constitution.
Wilson, who was married in 2004, said when he and his spouse, Robert Compton, travel out of state their marriage isn't always recognized.
"We are not legally protected when we leave the state of Massachusetts," Wilson said. "So we carry our marriage license, health care proxy, power of attorney, living wills, hoping that we will never have to use them."
Sullivan is the only candidate in the race who has said he is opposed to gay marriage.
The two Democratic candidates, Markey and Stephen Lynch, and fellow Republicans Daniel Winslow and Gabriel Gomez all say they support gay marriage.
Winslow said Democrats are targeting Sullivan because they hope to spark support for him among GOP primary voters, assuming he would be the easiest to defeat in the general election.
"That is a tactic that the Democratic National Committee has used in other states to try to pick the person they most wish they could run against," Winslow said. "They are trying to game the system on the Republican side and they absolutely don't want to run against me."
Sullivan said Democrats appeared to be taking aim at his candidacy in part because of his past prosecution of political corruption at the Statehouse.
"I'm not sure I'm welcome in that building because of some of the work that I did," he said.
Among the cases Sullivan prosecuted was that of former Democratic House Speaker Thomas Finneran, who pleaded guilty in 2007 to obstruction of justice for lying about his role in a legislative redistricting plan.
The UMass Lowell-Boston Herald poll released late Wednesday found Markey support was more than 29 percentage points greater than Lynch support among potential Democratic primary voters.
The poll question had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.6 percentage points.
Markey support was 17 percentage points greater than Sullivan's, 19 percentage points greater than Gomez's and 23 percentage points more than Winslow's.
The telephone poll of 600 Massachusetts voters from March 2-5 had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Associated Press Writer Bob Salsberg contributed to this report