Invitations offering all the presidential candidates a chance to address 6,000 minority journalists went out weeks ago, but as of Wednesday only Democrats Bill Bradley and Vice President Gore had accepted.
That was before a biting newspaper article appeared today, suggesting that the Republicans were more interested in chasing money than in wooing the minority vote. Two of those Republicans, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain, wasted no time rearranging their schedules to attend the gathering in an effort to prove they are serious about reaching out to minorities.
Bush, who was already in Seattle campaigning and fund-raising, suddenly made an unannounced visit to the Unity '99 conference. With Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.) by his side and trailed by a surprised pack of reporters, the GOP front-runner spent about 15 minutes strolling through a cavernous exhibition hall housing a job expo. He stopped to shake a few hands and greet people he described as "old friends."
"I have a lot of friends here from Texas, and I wanted to come by and say `hi,' which I did," Bush said.
Aides said Bush decided to come to the convention after reading a story today in the Los Angeles Times in which some journalists criticized Bush for snubbing their large convention even though he already had plans to be in town.
"I guess we're not green," E.R. Shipp, a member of the black journalists group and ombudsman at The Washington Post, told the Times in a reference to Bush's prodigious fund-raising. "Even just a walk by and wave to just show us some of his compassionate conservatism wouldn't be so bad."
The same story prompted McCain, who also had declined an earlier invitation to appear at the conference, to cancel an appearance in Cincinnati and fly here from Los Angeles. For his efforts, McCain got to deliver a short speech to about two dozen journalists on a sun-drenched plaza outside the convention center, while thousands of other convention-goers went on about their business inside.
"I picked up the L.A. Times and saw that GOP candidates . . . had decided not be here," McCain said. "So I rearranged my schedule."
For candidates seeking to reach out to minority communities, the Unity conference provides a forum to reach a much larger audience because many of the journalists who attend cover minority issues for media organizations across the country. The haste with which Bush and McCain upended their schedules underscores how sensitive some Republicans are to charges they have neglected minority voters, and their concern about appearing to have snubbed that group.
The hurried appearances by the GOP candidates contrasted with Bradley's appearance. The former New Jersey senator was introduced to several hundred journalists by Harvard professor Cornel West, who said he not only supports Bradley but is in "deep solidarity" with him.
Then, in a speech, Bradley detailed his long-standing concern for racial issues, beginning with his dawning awareness of the issue while he played on youth baseball teams, through his decade as a member of the New York Knicks basketball team and then through three terms in the Senate, where he earned a reputation for speaking out on the matter.
Bradley also took a shot at his Republican counterparts, pointedly noting that "I did not change my schedule" to be at the convention.
The flip-flop by the Republican candidates angered some Unity '99 organizers as well as black Republican activists, who believed the candidates should have seized the opportunity to address the convention from the beginning.
"This shows the limitations of this empty rhetoric of inclusion," said Faye M. Anderson, president of the Douglass Policy Institute and a longtime black conservative activist. "This is the same kind of thinking that led Bob Dole not to attend the NAACP convention in 1996. It seems that they use the rhetoric of inclusion only as a defense mechanism."
The irony for McCain and Bush is that they are both seen as candidates who can expand the reach of the Republican Party by appealing to minorities. In Arizona, McCain captured 55 percent of the Hispanic vote in his re-election campaign last year, according to exit polls. In his remarks today, McCain said he favors affirmative action, is "absolutely and unequivocally" committed to appointing an Asian American to his Cabinet, and opposes so-called English-only laws.
Bush, meanwhile, received more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in his last re-election campaign in Texas, which has helped shape his image as a "compassionate conservative."
But Bush passed on an opportunity to make that case before the Unity convention today. He proposed this morning that he address the convention, but the last-minute negotiations to give him a spot on the program broke down when Bush refused to open himself up to questions from the crowd. Since the start of his campaign, Bush has been careful to control his encounters with reporters.
Today, rather than face formal questioning, Bush chose to stroll through the exhibition hall and casually answer a few questions shouted at him by the trailing pack of journalists.
To a query about affirmative action, he replied: "I'm against quotas and I'm against special treatment. I'm for breaking down barriers, as we did in Texas."
But his rather brief appearance left Unity officials angry. "As a serious presidential contender, we believe Governor Bush missed a tremendous opportunity to share his plans for the country's future," said Catalina Camia, president of Unity.
Karen Hughes, Bush's communications director, said he made the decision to attend the convention during a flight here from Spokane. "People felt it was an important signal to send," so Bush rearranged his schedule.
In his speech, Bradley said he is "committed to achieving a greater degree of racial unity in our country."
During his campaign, Bradley has said repeatedly that he would confront big issues, including race, a topic on which he spoke frequently during his years as a senator. Bradley is providing a strong primary challenge to Gore, who is scheduled to speak here Friday.
Staff writer Kevin Merida contributed to this story.
CAPTION: George W. Bush talks to reporters as he tours a Unity '99 exhibition in Seattle. He redrew his schedule at last minute to make the appearance.
CAPTION: Harvard's Cornel West embraces Bill Bradley at the Unity '99 conference.