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Debate No-Shows Worry GOP Leaders

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By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Key Republican leaders are encouraging the party's presidential candidates to rethink their decision to skip presidential debates focusing on issues important to minorities, fearing a backlash that could further erode the party's standing with black and Latino voters.

The leading contenders for the Republican nomination have indicated they will not attend the "All American Presidential Forum" organized by black talk show host Tavis Smiley, scheduled for Sept. 27 at Morgan State University in Baltimore and airing on PBS. Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) all cited scheduling conflicts in forgoing the debate. The top Democratic contenders attended a similar event in June at Howard University.

"We sound like we don't want immigration; we sound like we don't want black people to vote for us," said former congressman Jack Kemp (N.Y.), who was the GOP vice presidential nominee in 1996. "What are we going to do -- meet in a country club in the suburbs one day? If we're going to be competitive with people of color, we've got to ask them for their vote."

Making matters worse, some Republicans believe, is that the decision to bypass the Morgan State forum comes after all top GOP candidates save McCain declined invitations this month to a debate on Univision, the most-watched Hispanic television network in the United States. The event was eventually postponed.

"For Republicans to consistently refuse to engage in front of an African American or Latino audience is an enormous error," said former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), who has not yet ruled out a White House run himself. "I hope they will reverse their decision and change their schedules. I see no excuse -- this thing has been planned for months, these candidates have known about it for months. It's just fundamentally wrong. Any of them who give you that scheduling-conflict answer are disingenuous. That's baloney."

Former Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman urged candidates to "reconsider this opportunity to lay out their vision and other opportunities in the future."

"Every one of these candidates I've talked to is sincerely committed to offering real choices to African American and Hispanic voters, and in my opinion have records that will appeal to many of these voters," he added.

Mehlman, a longtime aide to President Bush, aggressively courted the minority vote as RNC chairman in 2005-06. He recruited black candidates to run for office as Republicans and condemned electoral tactics that showed hints of race-baiting.

Mehlman's successor at the RNC was Sen. Mel Martinez (Fla.), a backer of legislation that would allow illegal immigrants now in the country to stay and eventually become citizens.

Except for McCain, the top GOP candidates have distanced themselves from that proposal, which Kemp worries will become another strike against the GOP with Hispanics. Bush received 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004, but the Republican base remains inflamed about illegal immigration, leading the candidates to focus on border-control proposals.

In passing on invitations to the Morgan State forum, the Republicans cited hectic schedules, noting in particular that September is a critical month for fundraising after a traditional summer slowdown. With fundraising closely scrutinized as a measure of their strength, all are eager to report a showing that reflects enthusiasm for their candidacies.

Democrats have been invited to so many debates and forums that the campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) was moved last month to send out a memo saying he would begin declining invitations to them. Republicans have confronted a somewhat more manageable schedule. Interest groups important to the party have held fewer forums, and the leading candidates have still felt they could skip some.

Several Republicans have so far declined to participate in a forum sponsored by the Web site YouTube that would be broadcast on CNN. Earlier this week, the top contenders skipped a "values voters" forum organized by conservative activists in Florida.

"We consider every debate invitation equally as they relate to the schedule," said Kevin Madden, a Romney spokesman. "Unfortunately, our schedule considerations for the month of September were such that we had to decline several debate invitations and candidate forums from different groups around the country, including Wharton Business School and CNN."

But while the GOP campaigns have generally offered no public rationale other than timing for missing the forums, an adviser to one suggested they had little to gain from attending an event such as Smiley's.

"What's the win?" said the adviser, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "Why would [the candidates] go into a crowd where they're probably going to be booed?"

Giuliani, Romney and McCain also declined to appear at events sponsored by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and the National Urban League, which Smiley said suggests a pattern of ignoring minority voters. He said debate organizers will set up lecterns showing the names of the absent candidates.

"When you reject every black invitation and every brown invitation you receive, is that a scheduling issue or is it a pattern?" he asked. "I don't believe anybody should be elected president of the United States if they think along the way they can ignore people of color. That's just not the America we live in."


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