During his keynote address at a black-tie dinner here Saturday, U.S. Sen. John Edwards (search) voiced his support for adoptions by gay parents.

The North Carolina senator, one of nine Democrats seeking the party's presidential nomination, isn't the only one courting gay voters. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search) has touted a law he signed allowing civil unions for gays and lesbians. U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, a decorated Vietnam veteran, makes has said gays should be allowed to serve in the military.

Bill Clinton made history in 1992 by openly courting gay voters en route to the White House. Eleven years later, the courting of gay voters is under way like never before.

"In a crowded race or a close race, an energized and mobilized constituency can make a real difference," said Dave Noble, executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats (search), a group that promotes the agenda of gays within the party.

"Right now, we've got so many different candidates going after the community, and there's not one candidate the community has settled upon."

Exit polls from the 2000 presidential election showed that 4 percent of voters were gay and that close to three-quarters of them voted for Democrat Al Gore. In the 2004 Democratic primaries, their influence could prove pivotal, activists argue.

Several candidates for next year's race, including Edwards, have hired staff members to advise them on gay issues. U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri (search) has said his daughter, Chrissy, will be an ambassador to gay groups. She is a lesbian.

"The gay community has become one of the constituencies you have to meet to be a viable Democrat," said Steve Elmendorf, a top adviser to Gephardt's campaign.

That was clear during this month's Democratic debate in South Carolina. The nine candidates each touted their gay-rights credentials and universally condemned anti-sodomy laws as an invasion of privacy.

Six of the nine candidates have endorsed the idea of civil unions, though most won't go as far to say they support gay marriage.

Edwards spoke Saturday night in Atlanta at an event held by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay-rights group. His speech also included calls for greater workplace protections and stepped-up efforts to find an AIDS vaccine.

"I was raised to believe in an America that embraces everybody," Edwards said.

When speaking of adoptions by gay parents, Edwards said, "In a world where far too many children are neglected or unwanted, we need to encourage responsible, loving adults to raise children, which is why I support the rights of gays and lesbians to adopt children."

Edwards did not explicitly address civil unions, though he apparently was referring to the subject when he said "not everyone of us will agree on every single issue."

During his 1998 Senate race, Edwards said he was opposed to gay marriage. Although he does not object to states' recognizing civil unions, he continues to have reservations about both gay marriage and civil unions, said Jennifer Palmieri, Edwards' campaign spokeswoman.

"It's an issue he thinks the country - and North Carolina - is not ready for," Palmieri said.

But his efforts to court the gay community could work against him in North Carolina, particularly if he ends up seeking re-election to the Senate in 2004.

If Edwards runs for the Senate, "you can sure this will be brought up," said Thad Beyle, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"It gives some ammunition to people. I think it's probably less of a big deal that it used to be, but there are still people here who are uncomfortable with this. They see homosexuality as a sin."

In a similar vein, the Democratic presidential nominee risks losing some support among swing voters in the South, analysts say. But campaign strategists downplay that potential.

"It's overrated as a general election liability," said Elmendorf, the Gephardt adviser. "In 1992, Clinton got people past the notion that if you're pro-gay rights, it will kill you in the South."