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Leading GOP Candidates Skip Debate on Black Issues

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee called his rivals' absence
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee called his rivals' absence "embarrassing." John McCain, Fred D. Thompson, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Mitt Romney were the no-shows. (By Carol T. Powers -- Bloomberg News)

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By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 28, 2007

Fred D. Thompson was at a fundraiser in Franklin, Tenn. Mitt Romney was gathering checks in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. Rudolph W. Giuliani was in California raking in some last-minute cash just north of Napa. John McCain spent the day in New York City, giving a speech and raising money.

Such were the scheduling conflicts that left the lecterns for the leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination empty at what was billed as the first GOP debate tailored to the concerns of black voters, held last night at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

"I apologize for the candidates who aren't here. I think it's a disgrace that they aren't here," Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.), a presidential hopeful, told the audience. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry to you and I'm sorry to those who are watching that they are not here."

Asked before the debate whether he accepted his rivals' claims of scheduling conflicts, Brownback said, "If it was a high enough priority, it would get on the schedule."

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, another candidate who made the trip, called the situation "embarrassing" for his rivals. "We've come a long way, but we have a long way to go, and we don't get there if we don't sit down and work through issues," he told the appreciative crowd.

The debate was hosted by PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley and attended by Brownback, Huckabee, Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.), Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) and Alan Keyes, a former ambassador who has sought the presidency twice before.

Several of the candidates took pains to cater to the mostly black audience, blaming inequality in America on continuing racism. Brownback said he wants Congress to pass a formal apology for slavery and segregation. Huckabee promised he would, as president, improve housing opportunities for minorities and address unequal treatment of different races in the criminal justice system. He also pledged to support voting rights for the District of Columbia.

By contrast, Tancredo declared that economic differences have "nothing to do with race," and several candidates reiterated their desire to crack down on illegal immigrants. Paul loudly repeated his call for an end to the war in Iraq. Keyes blamed the plight of the black community on moral decay.

But the forum, which was pitched as a chance to discuss the "covenant with black America," was undercut by the absence of the party's top contenders -- an outcome criticized by black activists, Democratic candidates and some senior Republican leaders.

"For the last several years, Republicans boasted of expanded outreach to minorities, claiming to renounce the Southern strategy which included racially divisive campaign tactics," Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Amaya Smith said in a statement. "Now when it's time to show up, Republicans are missing in action."

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich had called the decision to avoid the event an "enormous error" and "fundamentally wrong," and had said the scheduling excuses were "baloney." Ken Mehlman, a former party chairman, had urged the candidates to reconsider. And former vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp had said their decisions make it seem as though Republicans do not want black votes.

"If we're going to be competitive with people of color, we've got to ask them for their vote," Kemp said last week.


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