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Republican presidential candidates largely steer clear of LGBT issues

Overall, the GOP candidates -- and party as a whole -- seem to be slowly softening their once-chief commitment to blocking the advancement of LGBT rights.

The Republican Party has yet to produce a presidential candidate who could be described as “pro-LGBT.” But the first primary debate in Cleveland confirmed that no one in the crowded 2016 pack is exactly eager to run on an “anti-LGBT” platform.

While the candidates expressed support for religious freedom, opposition to ending the ban on transgender troops in the military, and disappointment with the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage across the nation, the issue of LGBT equality was largely eclipsed by other topics during Thursday night’s prime-time forum and earlier “kid’s table” debate. To be sure, LGBT Americans and advocates had little reason to be encouraged Thursday by the prospect of seeing a Republican president inaugurated in 17 months. But overall, the GOP candidates -- and party as a whole -- seem to be slowly softening their once-staunch commitment to blocking the advancement of LGBT rights.

Thursday's prime-time debate, which came one day after the Republican National Committee quietly rejected a pair of anti-gay resolutions, featured just one question related to same-sex marriage. It went to Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who struck a compassionate note.

RELATED: Maddow, Santorum go head to head on SCOTUS, gay marriage

“Our court has ruled and I said we’ll accept it,” said Kasich, whose administration defended Ohio’s same-sex marriage ban before the Supreme Court this year. “And guess what? I just went to a wedding of a friend of mine who is gay.”

The issue of attending a same-sex couple’s wedding emerged as a kind of litmus test for Republicans ahead of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the landmark case of Obergefell v. Hodges last June. Though every presidential candidate has said they believe marriage should be limited to one man and one woman, several have tried to strike a more nuanced position by saying they would go to the wedding of a same-sex couple they cared for.

Kasich, who avoided the same scrutiny as many of his competitors by being late to join the presidential race, made sure to grab his opportunity Thursday night to appeal to both base voters, who by and large oppose same-sex marriage, and an increasingly diverse and tolerant general electorate.

“Just because they don’t think the same way doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love them,” Kasich said. “That’s what we’re taught when we have strong faith.”

Perhaps more telling of how far the GOP has come on the issue of gay rights, though, was the audience’s applause to Kasich’s answer. Four years ago, a Republican presidential debate crowd booed a gay combat veteran for asking if the candidates would undo the progress ushered in by the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the military’s former ban on openly gay servicemembers. Now, the GOP primary audience finds the idea of loving gay people something to cheer about.

Later in Thursday’s debate, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee proved to have evolved little on the idea of making the military more inclusive. Asked about Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s recent announcement that the ban on transgender service members would soon be coming to an end, Huckabee said the military was “not a social experiment.”

“I’m not sure how paying for transgender surgery for soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines makes our country safer,” said Huckabee, one of the staunchest social conservatives in the race who once joked that he wished he could’ve claimed to have “felt like a woman when it came time to take showers in PE.” The condemnation of allowing over 15,000 transgender troops to soon serve in line with their gender identities could’ve certainly been sharper, however, and Huckabee quickly pivoted to a different topic: troop reductions. “The disaster is that we’ve forgotten why we even have a military,” he said.

At the earlier debate, where lower polling candidates tried to improve their standing, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal both said they would sign executive orders on Day 1 that would protect religious business owners who want to turn away gay customers. Santorum also took issue with the idea that the Supreme Court should have final say on the law of the land, equating the recent Obergefell ruling to the pre-Civil War Dred Scott decision, which denied citizenship rights to blacks whether they were free or enslaved.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who similarly tends to lament the Supreme Court’s power, was notably silent on LGBT issues during the main event. Cruz did promise, however, to repeal President Obama’s “unconstitutional” executive orders, presumably referring to those that banned the federal government and federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Human Rights Campaign called the night “troubling” in a press release Thursday. But as far as LGBT rights groups are concerned, it could’ve definitely been worse. The top issues discussed on Facebook mirrored those discussed most prominently during the debate:  immigration, race, the economy, education, and abortion. It’s a list LGBT advocates would do well to avoid.