Expectations that gay rights issues will be addressed at tonight's presidential debate in Nashville remain low – neither Senator John McCain nor Barack Obama discuss gay issues much with the mainstream media.

However, both men have discussed gay rights with the gay media. Analysis from those interviews and previous positions indicate severe differences on where the two men stand with regard to gay rights.

McCain has been endorsed by the Log Cabin Republicans – the gay Republicans – who call the Arizona senator an “inclusive” Republican. “On the most important issue that LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] Americans faced in the last decade – the Federal Marriage Amendment – Sen. John McCain stood with us. Now we stand with him,” Log Cabin Republicans President Patrick Sammon said in endorsing the candidate.

But opponents point out that McCain's vote should not be interpreted as support for gay marriage or even gay unions. McCain has repeatedly said that he is a deep believer in federalism – the notion that social issues should be the domain of the states.

“I voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2004 and 2006. I continue to oppose such an amendment today, because, as I've explained, this should be a state matter, and not one for the federal government – as long as no state is forced to adopt some other state's standard,” he told the gay weekly The Washington Blade.

McCain supported and campaigned for a measure in his home state of Arizona to alter its constitution to ban recognition of gay couples in 2006. He believes states should forbid gay marriage and even keeps open the possibility of reversing his decision on the federal marriage ban should the need arise.

Senator Barack Obama opposes gay marriage as well. However, the Illinois senator has endorsed civil unions for gay couples. And his endorsement appears to be evolving. In September, he told The Washington Blade that he would repeal the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that prohibits the federal government from recognizing gay couples.

“If elected, I would call on Congress to enact legislation that would repeal DOMA and ensure that the over 1,100 federal legal rights and benefits currently provided on the basis of marital status are extended to same-sex couples in civil unions and other legally recognized unions,” he told the gay weekly paper.

Obama does not call this gay marriage, but quiver he does not on the issue – calling on civil unions for gay couples with full federal marriage-like benefits is as complete an endorsement from a presidential candidate as one can expect during a heated race.

McCain told the Blade he supported implementation of a national AIDS strategy.

“I am committed to supporting the development of a National AIDS Strategy. Countries receiving PEPFAR aid are required to develop a national plan; but we don't have one in our country. It's important to settle on a national strategy – with input from state, local and federal government officials; along with private sector, doctors, drug companies and AIDS advocates. Let's roll up our sleeves and put together a National AIDS Strategy for more effectively addressing the domestic challenges. Recent CDC statistics show that gay men continue to be strongly impacted by the disease, and the disease is disproportionately affecting people of color. Our prevention and treatment efforts must be improved to address these challenges.” McCain said.

An apparent flip-flop for a senator who supported Jesse Helms' strategy to cut off HIV/AIDS prevention efforts to the gay community. Helms called gays “degenerate” and argued that gay people should not receive AIDS care because they had contracted the disease through their “deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct.” More recently, McCain has supported abstinence-only programs that leave out gay youth. The strategy, which calls for abstinence before marriage as a method to combat AIDS, ignores the fact that gay youth cannot marry in most states and has been called ineffective by experts.

Obama often advocates for a national AIDS strategy and has outlined a plan on his official website. Moreover, he has discussed the role homophobia has played in fueling the spread of the disease.

“One of the things we've got to overcome is a stigma that still exists in our communities,” Obama said at Howard University. “We don't talk about this. We don't talk about it in the schools. Sometimes, we don't talk about it in the churches. It has been an aspect of sometimes a homophobia, that we don't address this issue [of HIV] as clearly as it needs to be.”

McCain believes the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military is working, while Barack Obama believes the policy – “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” – is a failure that should be repealed.

Gay Republicans concede their candidate is weak on gay issues, saying that their endorsement is not about gay issues, but issues such as fiscal conservatism and national security that affect all Americans.

The non-gay endorsement of the gay Republicans serves to underscore McCain's lackluster support on gay issues.