The three leading candidates for the Democratic party’s 2006 nomination for governor squared off Saturday in their final debate before the June 6th primary. The candidates shied away from sharp attacks on one another during the hour-long debate and did not directly address the charges and counter charges being made in and about campaign advertising.

Toward the end of the debate, the candidates were asked to simply respond “yes” or “no” to several questions, including whether they support a state law that would allow for “civil unions” that give legal recognition to gay or lesbian relationships. Both Ed Fallon and Mike Blouin said they backed civil unions, while Chet Culver said he opposed civil unions.

After the debate, Blouin told reporters it was part of ensuring population growth in Iowa. “If we’re going to deal with the demographic shift that’s coming in this state, we have to be open and embracing of folks of diversity regardless of whether it’s race, whether it’s orientation, whether it’s religion, whether it’s color,” Blouin said. “This (civil unions) seems to me to be a way of doing that without changing our marriage laws.”

Fallon told reporters he not only would support civil unions, Fallon would back giving gay and lesbian couples the right to marry in Iowa. “I support equality for everybody,” Fallon said. “If Mary and Beth love each other they ought to be able to have the same opportunities as Steve and Mary.” According to Fallon, gay rights are “not a huge issue in his campaign,” but Fallon said it’s important for government not to discriminate against people who may be “different than the majority.”

Culver opposes civil unions for homosexual couples. “I don’t think we need to change the marriage laws at this time in Iowa,” Culver said. “I do think we need to add sexual orientation to the civil rights code.” That move would bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Culver’s opposition to civil unions for homosexuals is a flip-flop, according to the Blouin campaign. “I’m not going to be distracted by negative attacks,” Culver told reporters after the debate. “Mike Blouin has decided to go negative in this campaign.”

But organizers of a gay rights conference held this spring in Des Moines say they believe Culver told them he backed civil unions. Culver disputes that. “I do not think we need to change the marriage laws of Iowa,” Culver said. “I’ve said that throughout the course of this campaign.”

Blouin said Iowans aren’t ready to change the marriage laws and allow men to marry men and women to marry women, but they are ready to legalize “civil unions” for homosexuals in long-term relationships. “Iowans are pretty strong about non-discrimination. They don’t want anybody living second class in this state,” Blouin said. “That’s not just recent. That’s part of our whole, 150-year heritage.”

Blouin also charged that Culver had opposed the death penalty when he was younger, but now backs it as a candidate. Culver supports capital punishment for what he calls “heinous crimes” like the kidnap, rape and murder of a child, and Culver denies he’s ever announced in any public forum that he opposes capital punishment.

Saturday’s debate was sponsored by the Des Moines Register and broadcast on Iowa Public Television.