Presidential hopefuls John Edwards and Barack Obama have said they would be happy for their children to read stories featuring same-sex couples.

Hillary Clinton was less enthusiastic, calling it a matter for “parental discretion.”

The frontrunners for the Democratic party nomination for President in the 2008 election were speaking at an MSNBC candidates debate.

Following outrage in Lexington, Massachusetts, last year when second graders were read a story featuring two princes marrying, candidates were asked if they would be comfortable having a story of same-sex marriage read to their own young children.

Despite being opposed to same-sex marriage, Mr Edwards said:

“Yes, absolutely. What I want is I want my children to understand everything about the difficulties that gay and lesbian couples are faced with every day.”

He added that as President, he would lead efforts to gain same-sex couples the same benefit entitlement as heterosexual couples, would get rid of the Defence of Marriage Act and scrap the US military’s policy of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’

Asked the same question, Mr Obama said:

“You know, I feel very similar to John, that, you know, the fact is, my 9-year-old and my 6-year-old I think are already aware that there are same-sex couples.”

Speaking of a need for tolerance, hope and reason he added:

“That, I think, is one of the most important things that the next President can do, is try to bring us together and stop trying to fan the flames of division that have become so standard in our politics in Washington.”

When asked whether he spoken to his daughters personally on gay marriage he said: “My wife has.”

Mrs Clinton supported Mr Obama’s assertions saying: “I think that we’ve seen differences used for divisive purposes, for political purposes in the last several elections, and I think every one of us on this stage are really personally opposed to that and will do everything we can to prevent it.”

While cagey on the matter of same-sex education for children, calling it a matter of “parental discretion”, she expressed support for the hate crime bill, which offers gays legal protection against violence and was approved by Senate yesterday.

“We haven’t been able to get it passed, and it is an important measure to send a message that we stand against hatred and divisiveness. And I think that, you know, that’s what the Democratic Party stands for in contrast all too often to the other side.”

The White House has threatened to veto the bill, saying in a statement that state and local criminal laws already cover the new crimes defined under the bill and there is “no persuasive demonstration of any need to federalise such a potentially large range of violent crime enforcement.”