Social issues like abortion and gay marriage came up early and often during the first widely televised debate in the 2nd Congressional District Democratic primary Thursday night.

The 90-minute Hawaii News Now debate also covered economic growth and regulations, the Jones Act, Native Hawaiian rights and the Akaka Bill, social security and Obamacare, the rail project and the difference between urban Honolulu and the neighbor island and rural Oahu communities in the district.

But the first topics of discussion, and the subjects of the most finger-pointing, were the social issues. Frontrunners Mufi Hannemann and Tulsi Gabbard drew criticism from one another and from rivals Esther Kiaaina and Bob Marx for their evolving or vague positions on those issues.

The first question of the evening was to Gabbard, who had been far behind in early polling but pulled a stunning turnaround this year to move into a dead heat with the better-known Hannemann. And it was about how she delineates her positions from her father, Sen. Mike Gabbard, who opposed gay rights in the Hawaii Legislature.

Gabbard said she’ll work to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and believes in equality for all people.

“I think the larger issue here is all about consistency through the years,” Hannemann said in response. “When you take a position, especially one as important as a social issue regarding marriage, I think people look for consistency. And so, with this particular issue, it’s really hard to fathom the thought that someone could change their position during the course of the campaign when there were many other instances to say their position has changed or evolved.”

Marx was even more direct.

“She voted against a bill allowing rape victims to get morning-after pills. She’s been anti-women, anti-gay until just this campaign,” Marx said.

Later, Hawaii News Now reporter Keoki Kerr, a member of the panel, asked Gabbard about her “flip-flop” on gay marriage. She talked about her experiences in the Middle East that showed her what can happen when the government acts as a “moral arbiter.” On multiple other occasions, she strayed from the topic at hand to rebut assertions about her record on abortion and same-sex rights.

Civil Beat has previously investigated Gabbard’s leftward journey and her family’s support for her campaign.

But she wasn’t the only candidate to take heat on social issues. Hannemann struggled to answer a question about whether he’d support the Respect for Marriage Act.

“This is an issue that I struggle with because I have my personal views, but I also know that part of being a congressional representative or an elected official, you must also be willing to hear the concerns and priorities of your constituents,” he said. “So wherefore I still remain supportive of traditional marriage between a man and a woman, I’d be more than willing, as I’ve said to those who have approached me on their desire to repeal DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, that I’d be willing to sit down, I’d be willing to be educated, I’d be willing to hear firsthand on why they feel that that is something that we should do.”

Gabbard turned the tables, noting that Hannemann had dodged the question and has changed his tune on civil unions without explaining why. That in turn drew another round of attacks from Kiaaina.

Eventually pressed by Kerr for a straight yes or no answer, Hannemann said he still supports the Defense of Marriage Act but would uphold the law even if he disagrees with it — just like he would uphold the law on abortion rights.

Some other notes and highlights from the first televised debate:

  • Hannemann played the part of the frontrunner, using his opportunities to question each of his opponents to ask the same thing three times: What will you do to hit the ground running? He repeatedly highlighted the skills he developed as Honolulu’s mayor, and closed the night by telling voters they can trust him to get the job done because they know him well.

  • Gabbard accused Hannemann of a “pay-to-play” culture in his mayoral administration that saw campaign donors receive millions of dollars in rail contracts. The generally unflappable Hannemann shot back that he followed procurement rules and later said, “I want assure everyone out there, all the investigations in the world will never uncover anything illegal, improper with any contract that came out from my administration, whether it was rail or not. If that had occurred, I certainly would have been accountable for it, and it ain’t gonna happen.”

  • Marx is the only neighbor island candidate in a race to represent a district where 60 percent of the voters live on neighbor islands. He said the differences between the islands are dramatic: “We who live and work in the district every day have much better feel of the particular problems. Honolulu, particularly, is worried about potholes. We don’t even have paved roads. They’re worried about a failing water system that hasn’t been maintained properly. We don’t even have water systems in Puna and much of the rural islands. So it’s a whole different way of seeing things.”

  • Kiaaina, former chief advocate for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and proud of her heritage, went after Marx for saying in a debate on Maui that being Hawaiian is a state of mind. Marx said Thursday “aloha is in our hearts” regardless of race. Kiaaina, who also worked for Sen. Daniel Akaka, said Hawaiians “are a people and we are living and we are breathing here in our homeland.”

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