Senator Hillary Clinton has told an small-town audience in Iowa that she supports same-sex unions and the removal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

The policy bars openly gay, bisexual or lesbian people from serving in the US Armed Forces. It was introduced in 1993.

“Right now, we are discharging soldiers, at a time when we don’t have enough people to do the missions we need around the world, because they’re gay.

“Not because they’ve done anything, but just because they’re gay,” she said, according to the Des Moines Register.

She quoted former Republican Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, who commented:

“I think the question should be not whether you are straight, but whether you shoot straight.”

She also told a crowd of around a thousand people in Decorah, northern Iowa, that she supports the rights of gay people to form civil unions.

She did not mention gay marriage.

Currently, Massachusetts has legal same-sex marriage and Vermont, New Jersey, and Connecticut have allowed civil unions.

Senator Clinton, while still the front-runner for the Democrat nomination for President, is facing a strong challenge from Barack Obama.

Some gay activists have criticised her for backing gay rights in private but not in public.

Senator Clinton came under fire last month for saying that said she believed it is for “others to conclude” if homosexuality is morally wrong.

Her comments were in response to the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the American armed forces, Marine General Peter Pace, who said in an interview that he thought homosexuality was immoral.

Senator Clinton then issued a statement saying: “I disagree with what he said and do not share his view, plain and simple.”

Senator Obama, followed a similar tactic.

He chose not to answer repeated questions on the morality of homosexuality, and tried to concentrate on the current “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy.

Later a spokesman for his campaign said Senator Obama did not think homosexuality is immoral.

Steve Sanders, a leading gay Democrat, told newsday.com:

“Hillary and Barack have made very public overtures to religious Americans. They are trying to figure out how progressive Democrats can also make appeals to Americans of faith. It’s a work in progress.”