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.
Smiley, who had spent months wooing the Republican candidates, appeared angry in an interview on CNN the night before the debate. In the interview, with anchor Rick Sanchez, Smiley accused the leading Republican candidates of trying to avoid being confronted by black voters and black journalists.
"They're trying to go, these front-runners, these Republican front-runners, trying to go through this entire primary process and never have to address voters of color and never be queried by journalists of color," Smiley said. "And I think in the most multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America ever, that, quite frankly, is unacceptable."
The top GOP candidates refused to give in to pressure from both parties, saying they have been buried under a mountain of debate requests that are particularly difficult to accept as they race to raise money in the final days of the third fundraising quarter.
In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody this week, Romney bristled at the accusation that his decision to skip the debate is an indication of how much -- or how little -- his party cares about minorities.
"Of course we care about minority voters. We're not entirely brain-dead," Romney said. "We want people in the entire country to vote for us -- Hispanic voters, African American voters -- we all want them in the primary and in the general."
Romney turned the tables on the debate's sponsors, the Public Broadcasting Service and Morgan State University, saying, "You call for one in the last couple of weeks in September, which is the last part of the quarter, most of us have got things lined up."
That explanation was far from satisfactory for many critics, who say the Republican Party is already struggling to appeal to minority voters who view the party and its candidates with skepticism. The leading Democratic contenders for president attended a forum moderated by Smiley last month and have debated in front of several audiences that their GOP rivals have snubbed.
Romney, McCain and Giuliani have skipped debates or forums sponsored by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and by the National Urban League.