Democrats Address Race Issues In Debate

At Howard University for last night's Democratic debate are, from left, Hillary Clinton, Joseph Biden, Bill Richardson, John Edwards, Barack Obama, Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel and Christopher Dodd.
At Howard University for last night's Democratic debate are, from left, Hillary Clinton, Joseph Biden, Bill Richardson, John Edwards, Barack Obama, Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel and Christopher Dodd. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Anne E. Kornblut and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 29, 2007

In the first presidential debate designed to focus on minority issues, the Democratic contenders aggressively sought to outmuscle one another on the topics of race and poverty and derided yesterday's Supreme Court decision banning most affirmative action in public schools.

The forum at Howard University seemed to be a guaranteed fit for Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), the only black candidate in the race. He repeatedly discussed racial disparity, education and AIDS and used his unique status to call for greater responsibility from African Americans, one of his frequent themes. But the audience largely embraced the other seven Democrats on stage as well, applauding Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) when she called for a greater focus on AIDS research and cheering Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio) when he called for an end to the Iraq war.

By the end of the 90-minute forum -- attended by numerous prominent black leaders, including Al Sharpton and Princeton scholar Cornel West -- the group had covered an array of issues, such as the genocide in Darfur and disparities in education.

"You can look at this stage and see an African American, a Latino, a woman contesting for the presidency of the United States," Clinton said. "But there is so much left to be done, and for anyone to assert that race is not a problem in America is to deny the reality in front of our very eyes."

Obama, when it was his turn, said, "We have made enormous progress, but the progress that we have made is not good enough."

Just hours after the Supreme Court handed down a decision restricting public school districts' use of race in most school-acceptance decisions, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) described the ruling as "a major step backwards." He added: "And as president of the United States, I would use whatever tools available to me to see to it that we reverse this decision today."

Referring to the Bush administration, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) said: "They have turned the court upside down, and the next president of the United States will be able to determine whether or not we go forward or continue this slide."

With more than six months to go until voters begin casting ballots in the primaries, last night marked the third time the Democratic contenders gathered to debate -- or at least appear together on the same stage; no direct exchanges were allowed.

Hosted by Tavis Smiley and sponsored by PBS, the "All-American Presidential Forum" will be repeated in September with a debate among the Republican candidates. Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick introduced the contenders, saying it is "a heady time for Democrats" with the Bush administration so unpopular and so many Democrats newly installed in power.

A question about whether the candidates would support a federal law guaranteeing a right to return for New Orleans residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina produced one of the most spirited discussions. The Democrats roundly condemned the Bush administration for its response to the storm and offered a series of pledges to use the power of the White House to help rebuild the ravaged city. Former senator John Edwards of North Carolina said he would appoint a White House counselor with the responsibility to report to him daily on the pace and progress of reconstructing the city.

"What we should do is allow the people of New Orleans to rebuild their own city," he said. "We ought to pay them a decent wage, give them health-care coverage, instead of having big multinational corporations get billion-dollar contracts with the government."

Clinton, touting a 10-point plan for Gulf Coast recovery, said rebuilding must come before repatriation. "This administration has basically neglected, with almost criminal indifference, the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast, in particular New Orleans and the parishes," she said. "So even if we were to give people a right, there is nothing to return to."

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