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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Don't ask, don't tell will be a challenge for the next president. It's been Pentagon policy for 15 years. It wasn't until last week that Congress held its first-ever hearing on the impact of the policy toward gays in the military. A growing number of Americans, including members of the military, say it has not worked. NPR's David Welna explains where Barack Obama and John McCain stand on don't ask, don't tell.

DAVID WELNA: Earlier this month, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found 75 percent of Americans support openly gay people serving in the military. It also showed such support has doubled among Republicans, from 32 percent 15 years ago to 64 percent today.

Democrat Barack Obama also favors letting the estimated 65,000 gay members of the military serve openly rather than keep their sexual orientation a secret, as they're required to do under don't ask, don't tell.

NORRIS: I believe that we need to repeal the don't ask, don't tell policy. He also says he believes if gay men and lesbians did serve openly in the U.S. military, they would not undermine its, quote, "efficacy." Still, in a June interview with The Military Times, Obama struck a conciliatory note.

BARACK OBAMA: This is not something that I'm looking to shove down the military's throats. I want to make sure that we're doing it in a thoughtful and principled way, but I do believe that at a time when we are short-handed, that everybody who is willing to lay down their lives on behalf of the United States and can do so effectively, can perform critical functions, should have the opportunity to do so.

WELNA: Obama pointed to a sharp turnaround on don't ask, don't tell by some of the military officers most closely involved in drawing up the policy. He singled out former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General John Shalikashvili, who last year wrote the time had come for seriously reconsidering a policy that's led to the expulsion of more than 12,000 gay service-members.

OBAMA: I think General Shalikashvili's assessment is right, that people's attitudes have evolved. You've got our British counterparts and our Israeli counterparts without this policy, and nobody would suggest that they have had problems on the ground.

WELNA: There's not a word about don't ask, don't tell on Republican John McCain's campaign Web site, but in a November, 2006 interview on ABC's "This Week," McCain pointed to that policy in affirming that he's pro gay rights.

JOHN MCCAIN: In the respect that I believe that the don't ask, don't tell policy is working in the military, I don't know how you view that.

WELNA: McCain voted for the don't ask, don't tell policy in 1993, and in April last year he wrote a letter to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network saying, quote, "I remain opposed to the open expression of homosexuality in the U.S. military."

Last November, here's what McCain had to say at a YouTube GOP candidate debate when a gay retired general asked him about allowing gays to serve openly in the armed forces.

MCCAIN: All the time I talk to our military leaders, beginning with our Joint Chiefs of Staff and the leaders in the field, such as General Petraeus and General Odierno and others who are designated leaders with the responsibility of the safety of the men and women under their command and their security and protect them as best they can. Almost unanimously they tell me that this present policy is working, that we have the best military in history, we have the bravest, most professional, best prepared, and that this policy ought to be continued because it's working.

WELNA: The two candidates' stances on don't ask, don't tell are watched closely by at least one group of voters. A Harris poll done this month found that among gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Americans, 60 percent support Obama compared to 14 percent who favor McCain. David Welna, NPR News, The Capitol.

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