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Biden and Clinton court LGBT community while offering differing tones

While speaking to a group of gay rights activists, the vice president quipped that "there are homophobes still left — most of them are running for president."

WASHINGTON — Vice President Joe Biden praised the progress gay rights activists have made while speaking to an LGBT group Saturday night, but he also quipped, "There are homophobes still left — most of them are running for president."

The vice president spoke to 3,500 LGBT activists and leaders in a cavernous subterranean ballroom at the Washington Convention Center for the annual Human Rights Campaign dinner, a speaking gig Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton turned down in order to appear on "Saturday Night Live," The New York Times reported.

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Biden is close to deciding on a 2016 presidential bid against Clinton, and the LGBT community is an important constituency for any Democrat eyeing the White House. He contrasted with the former secretary of state at one point on Saturday, telling gay rights activists that equality would come easily now — even though just hours before Clinton had warned the same group that further change would be difficult.

While the vice president dropped no hints Saturday night about a possible 2016 run, the issue confronted him just moments after he stepped on stage. “A number of you have said to me over the last three to four years,” he began before being interrupted by a shout of “You should run!” Biden paused for a moment to laugh and said, “Thank you very much — no, they didn't say that.” Some chants of “Run, Joe, run!” could also be heard. 

Biden went on to take a bit of a victory lap for being ahead of President Obama by endorsing marriage equality in 2012. "I was just answering in a straight-forward, direct way that I have known my whole life," he said. 

Though Clinton gave up the keynote spot to the vice president, she addressed the group’s breakfast meeting early Saturday instead, giving the first speech of her 2016 campaign exclusively focused on LGBT rights. She thanked the Human Rights Campaign for helping “change a lot of minds, including mine” on marriage equality. 

Such a sea change in public opinion was evident this June, when the Supreme Court issued a ruling legalizing gay marriage in all 50 states. The momentous decision also left the LGBT rights movement at a crossroads, however: In achieving its most important goal, it also lost its clearest rallying cry and organizing purpose. 

“As historic as it was, our victory at the Supreme Court did not end discrimination in this country,” insisted HRC President Chad Griffin.

Biden and Clinton both showed they understand the dynamics of the movement's struggle, but viewed that future through different colored lenses.

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On policy, Clinton and Biden lined up almost perfectly. They both called for a new focus on transgender rights and working to expand LGBT rights abroad. They identified the same three specific domestic policy goals: A federal equality act that would extend civil rights protections to LGBT Americans, allowing trans people serve in the military, and upgrading to “honorable discharge” the status of service members who were kicked out of the military under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

Biden also wasn't alone in coming prepared with barbs directed at the Republican presidential field.

Clinton, for her part, threw out this howler: “Ben Carson says that marriage equality is what caused the fall of the Roman Empire. Ted Cruz slammed a political opponent for marching in a Pride parade. He clearly has no idea what he’s missing. Pride parades are so much fun!” 

But Clinton and Biden broke on the path ahead in one telling way: Whereas Biden suggested the battle was largely a fait accompi, Clinton focused on the challenges and the need to fight hard for equality.

“After all the remarkable achievements of the past few years, no one would blame you or HRC for wanting to take a break, to kick back, kind of enjoy what's going on, put on a pair of orange shoes and have a good time! Just for a little while, right?” Clinton said. “I wish that all the progress that we’ve made was so secure, and so deeply ingrained in our laws and our values, that we didn’t need to constantly keep defending it. But we’re not there yet.”

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Less than twelve hours later, Biden’s tone was decidedly more optimistic. Sure, he said, there are people like Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who has refused to issue gay marriage license. “Don’t worry about them, no, I mean it,” he said. “The American people are already with you.” 

He promised the changes would come faster and easier and feedback on themselves, as they already have, with change begetting change.

“It's not going to be as hard as you think,” he said.

Both Clinton and Biden have prided themselves on being strong advocates for LGBT rights, and while most here seemed in Clinton’s camp at the moment, some said there would be plenty of interest from the LGBT community in a Biden candidacy.

Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in theSupreme Court case that legalized gay marriage in all 50 states, has supported Clinton since 2008 and said he appreciated her acknowledgment that she had evolved, like so many others. 

But he said that if Biden got into the race, the vice president would cause some second thoughts. “There’s so much abiding love for Biden,” Obergfell said. “His entire career in politics, he’s been on our side, and that does mean a lot. It will cause a lot of soul searching if he throws his hat in the ring.”

Kirk Stone, from Los Angeles, said Biden’s work during the confirmation of Justice Clarence Thomas cast a shadow over the vice president. “There are going to be Biden supporters in the gay community, but he has issues for me,” said Stone, citing the Anita Hill hearings. “If you go back and watch the way he treated her, it would very difficult for me to support him. 

But Francis Leclair, an entrepreneur from Orange County, California, said his party can’t wrong. “I admire Joe Biden, that would be really tough,” he said. “No matter where you go in the Democratic side, it’s great you have people so committed to LGBT rights.”