When two of the presidential candidates sparred recently about whether five-year-old “Johnny” was ready to hear about the birds and the bees from his teacher, the topic was widely welcomed into the 2008 race. In a year when the Bush administration’s abstinence-only education programs have suffered blow after blow, perhaps it was time for a debate on what comes next. A few cynics wondered aloud, however, whether the candidates are really worried about STD rates and unplanned pregnancies among young people—or just playing politics.

The sex-ed dust-up started last month when Democratic candidate Senator Barack Obama told a Planned Parenthood forum in Washington, DC, that “science-based” sex education tailored toward various age groups should begin as early as kindergarten, at first with issues such as inappropriate touching and the basics of reproduction. "It’s the right thing to do,” he said, reiterating views laid out in a 2004 article in suburban Chicago’s Daily Herald newspaper: “If [kindergarteners] ask a teacher ‘where do babies come from’… providing information that…it’s not a stork is probably not an unhealthy thing.”

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, a Republican candidate, quickly countered that the amount of sex education appropriate for a five-year-old is none. “Senator Obama is wrong if he thinks science-based sex education has any place in kindergarten,” he said during a campaign speech two days later in South Carolina.

Were they just posturing? Rod McCullom, a political and pop culture writer, and creator of Rod2.0, a blog that provides daily news about the black LGBT community, says Obama’s comments were an easy target for Romney. “It’s just the latest tactic of the right wing to try to…scare a lot of people” into thinking something’s wrong with Obama—as if he has some untoward interest in talking to little children about sex. McCullom also believes the Republicans want to use this issue as a launching point for hot-button issues such as abortion.

Others find the Obama-Romney debate to be besides the point. Thomas Coates, PhD, of the Division of Infectious Diseases at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, is excited to see the candidates raising sex education to the level of public debate. “There are so many other issues that are sort of playing big,” he says. “I’m glad they’re talking about this.”

That’s also the perspective of Diana Bruce, director of policy and government affairs at AIDS Alliance for Children, Youth & Families, in Washington, DC. “I think it’s great that sex education is sort of getting more attention on the national landscape—because it’s an issue that parents think about,” she says.

But what if Romney is simply hunting around for new ways to limit the availability of sex education following the loss in credibility his Republican Party’s “abstinence-only” dogma has suffered recently? A 13-study analysis published earlier this month found that abstinence-only programs don’t help to prevent HIV infections in youths; and in June, abstinence programs received their first federal funding cut from the Senate appropriations committee since 2001.

“I think we’ve sort of gone past the point [of debating the importance of] sex education,” says McCullom. “Even die-hard conservatives understand that we have to have sex education in school. [So now they’re asking:] ‘How can we chip away at it?’ We can chip away at what types of things can be instructed. We can chip away at what age it should be instructed.”