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Candidates avoid issue of homosexual rights. Among those seeking the presidency, only Jesse Jackson has openly supported civil rights demands of gays and lesbians.

Many issues will be thoroughly discussed during the next 13 months of the United States presidential campaign - but gay rights won't be one of them. ``Most of the presidential candidates are going to skirt as wide as they can from this issue,'' says political scientist Norman Ornstein.

The reason? Most candidates have everything to lose, and little to gain, by taking a position on this issue. Everett Carll Ladd, executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, says it is ``hard to know how a candidate could help himself with the electorate by talking about it at all.''

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A candidate who comes across as too sympathetic to homosexuals could lose votes with the much larger heterosexual community. Conversely, says Mr. Ladd, one who seems ``WASPish and narrow'' also would see his support diminish.

A week ago some 200,000 people rallied in Washington on behalf of homosexuals. Among other things, they want the government to pass a federal law that would make homosexuality a civil right. Such a proposal would make it illegal for society to discriminate against anyone because he or she is homosexual, much as it now is generally illegal to discriminate against anyone for reasons of race, gender, or religion.

They are not likely to win this, either.

A bill to this effect was introduced last January in the House of Representatives. But it is languishing in a House subcommittee that has no plans to hold hearings on it, let alone approve it. A similar measure is to be introduced soon into the Senate.

``I would be very, very skeptical'' that Congress will act on this issue, says Mr. Ornstein. ``I don't think you're going to see legislative action here. It is a very touchy issue.''

More likely, he says, the principal pressure on Congress soon will come from the other direction: to pass legislation that is antihomosexual in nature.

Although no such legislation has yet been introduced, Ornstein forecasts that ``you're going to see it in the AIDS arena.''

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In giving the gay-rights issue a wide berth, Congress and most presidential candidates are reflecting the public view. Ornstein says that a recent Times-Mirror poll by the Gallup organization, in which he participated, found that only 9 percent of Americans support the gay-rights movement. Fifty percent were flatly opposed to it.

``You look at results like that,'' says Ornstein, ``and it would be quite surprising'' if many presidential candidates supported gay rights.

``There's been a trend in public opinion'' of increasing opposition toward homosexuality, Ladd says. Polls of five years ago indicated that 45 percent of Americans thought homosexual relations should be made legal; but by this year only 33 percent favored legalization, while 55 percent opposed it.

In part, this trend reflects the modest but growing conservatism of the American electorate on social issues in recent years, Ladd says.

But the change in public sentiment may also, in part, reflect growing national concern about acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Now considered medically incurable, the disease originated in the United States primarily among homosexuals.

Thus far, most Americans afflicted with AIDS have been homosexuals, although the ailment is also spreading more slowly among heterosexuals, especially intravenous drug abusers.

One presidential candidate - the Rev. Jesse Jackson - is bucking the trend and supporting homosexual rights. The only major presidential candidate to appear at the Washington rally in support of homosexuals, Mr. Jackson told the crowd he supported gay rights and the legal prevention of discrimination against homosexuals.

It is a stand, says a Jackson campaign aide, that is ``very consistent with what he's fought for all along - equal protection under the law for all citizens.''

Ornstein says that, aside from Jackson's personal conviction, the candidate is in a different position from other presidential aspirants. They are trying to appeal to the broad middle ground of Americans, whose support will determine the outcome of next November's general election.

Doubtless, these candidates remember how large numbers of homosexuals embarrassed the Democratic Party during its 1984 convention by demonstrating outside the hall, thereby linking Democrats with homosexual views in the thinking of an unknown number of voters.

But Jackson, rather than positioning himself for November votes, is running for the nomination, Ornstein says, by ``trying to appeal to a whole host of'' special interest groups that are active in Democratic primary politics. One of these is the homosexual community.

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