GOP Debate 'Snub' Raises Concerns Among Black Voters

PBS is preparing to air a presidential forum for Republican White House hopefuls, focusing on issues important to people of color. But unlike the previous forum, hosted for Democrats, the party's top four contenders will be missing. Michael Steele, the current chairman of GOPAC, a non-profit that grooms Republicans to run for office, is joined by pollster Frank Luntz to discuss the perceived snub by the GOP.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, and a pioneering television executive.

But first, some politics. Tonight, PBS will air a forum for Republican presidential hopefuls that focuses on issues important to people of color. It's the second one organized and moderated by radio and TV personality Tavis Smiley. But unlike the previous forum Smiley hosted for Democrats, some key faces will be missing - the top four GOP contenders. They cite scheduling conflicts, but a number of commentators - not all minorities - see it as a snub and another example of party indifference to their needs or concerns.

Joining me now in the studio to talk about all this is Michael Steele. He is the former lieutenant governor of Maryland and currently the chairman of GOPAC, a nonprofit that trains Republican candidates for state and local offices. Also joining us is pollster Frank Luntz. He is the author of "Words that Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear." He's on the phone from Charlotte, North Carolina.

Welcome to you both.

Mr. MICHAEL STEELE (Chairman, GOPAC; Former Lieutenant Governor, Maryland): Hello.

Dr. FRANK LUNTZ (Pollster; Author, "Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear"): Hey.

MARTIN: Michael Steele, let's start with you. It's my understanding that you helped organize tonight's forum.

Mr. STEELE: Yeah. I've been working on it for about four or five months now.

MARTIN: What was your role?

Mr. STEELE: Just background. Deal with the campaigns and try to massage this -them through this process, allay some of the fears that are traditional to Republicans who confronted with facing a black audience, and letting them know that, hey, we don't bite. We may boo, but that's - we're just an interactive audience. And you go with the flow and that's all good, but…

MARTIN: How did you find out that the top four - former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, Arizona Senator John McCain, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney - would not be coming? How did you find out?

Mr. STEELE: It trickled in. I mean, we would get word - in the case of McCain, had signed on very early to be there, according to what Tavis told me at the time I joined, which is about February in this effort. And you find out over, you know, you get the phone call says oh, we can't make it. I'm like, okay, why? And they go through the litany of reasons why. And it gets a little bit frustrating, because if you have put this in the context. In isolation, this doesn't seem like a big deal.

But when you put it in the context of not attending the NAACP debate in July and not attending the Urban League debate in August, you kind of say to yourself when you get to a debate in the black community with a largely black audience in Baltimore City, HBCU, and you say I can't come because of fill in the blank, people then say, well, what's up? Why all of a sudden this is a problem? You've known about this since March 7th when the letters went out, and this is almost October, so it's - this is not a surprise for the schedule.

MARTIN: It was also my understanding that having participated in the debate that Tavis put together for the Democrats in June…

Mr. STEELE: Right.

MARTIN: …that this had been planned since last year, and that he'd reached out to the chairman, at that time, of both parties, the Democrats and the Republican, had had understandings with both parties that the top candidates would come.

Mr. STEELE: Yeah. Ken Mehlman was on the top of this from the very beginning and really pushed hard to get our candidates there. So this is not something that just showed up in the last few weeks of our time, planning and preparing. This is something that was going on for quite some time, almost a year in the process.

MARTIN: Frank Luntz, I wanted to ask you. What do you make of it? I don't know if you still consider yourself a Republican advisor, but you have been in the past. You've worked for Republican candidates as a pollster and as a sort of political consultant. What do you think of the decision by the top four to miss this?

Dr. LUNTZ: Well, I watched the polling numbers for the Republicans and President Bush within the black community, and there is a joke - I think it came from Jay Leno - that at one point, sickle cell anemia had a higher favorability rating than George Bush. It's bad enough that you miss debates, when they missed Katrina and the African-American community watched day after day as Washington didn't come down, didn't deliver, and there are issues on Louisiana and in the city of New Orleans, but they were still looking for Washington for help, that sent such a horrific message to the black community that the Republican Party doesn't care. And the debates are symbolic, but at least in the debates, you can stand up and say that what happened back then was wrong and that under my administration, I would change it.

And now the four leading candidates don't have that opportunity, and you can understand the anger, the frustration and the bitterness among people of color towards the GOP. But considering what has happened over the last four years, I would have expected these candidates to rush down there and to talk about how they would have been different in a situation like New Orleans.

MARTIN: Are you making a moral argument or a political argument? A moral argument in this sense is saying that if Republicans want to stand for all, they need to show that they stand for all. Or are you making a political argument that politically, this is stupid?

Dr. LUNTZ: That's a great question. And I actually, I think I'm making more of a moral argument than I am a political argument. But let me take it one step further. It's not just for Latinos and African-Americans and Asians. There's a segment of the white population - and I learned this working in New York City. There's a segment of the white population that will vote for candidates based on how they treat the non-white population, and Republicans are sending a message to them, or at least these four leading candidates, by not participating.

Tavis Smiley is an incredible host, and he is completely fair. And I like what the lieutenant governor said about the audiences. This is the most engaged, active audience that you can imagine. What an opportunity to do something that nobody is expecting and reach out to everyone watching that debate. And I think they've blown that opportunity.

MARTIN: I should mention that we've reached out to the Republican National Committee. They also cited scheduling conflicts in asking someone to participate in our conversations today, but they sent a statement by their chairman Mike Duncan saying, "The Republican Party" - I'm quoting now - "has a very strong record when it comes to education, home ownership and small business growth that will resonate with all voters, including African-Americans."

Mr. STEELE: It won't resonate if you don't show up, folks. I'm sorry. You know, I've been doing this for a long time, and I've served on the executive committee, and I love…

MARTIN: And I should mention for those who don't know, you are also African-American.

Mr. STEELE: I - African-American, yeah.

MARTIN: You're chairman of the Republican Party in Maryland.

Mr. STEELE: That's right. I was chairman of the Republican Party, chairman of my county party, Prince George's. And you - you haven't lived until you've been chairman for Prince George's County Republican Party. Well, you know, you're outnumbered 5-to-1 when you get up every day.

But the reality of it is, I'm tired of the statements just being issued by paper. I'm tired of, you know, the same, we're good on these issues. Well, dadgonnit, get into the community and tell people about that story. Tell them about the history of the party and the relationship - I think, a very important relationship - between African-Americans and the party. And yet, we don't do that, and we issue the statements and it just gets frustrating.

And I'm hoping, I'm hoping that at some point it sinks in. I think it will, at least with Mike Huckabee and those who are showing up tonight for this debate who'll be there to make it a conversation. They'll have that opportunity. And so, you know, I said at one point to Tavis, Tavis, at the end of the day, I really don't care if there's just one of these guys show up, just one show up. For me, that sends an important signal that we're going to do this differently going forward. And by screaming and shouting and pulling them - shoving, the party's going to get to the point where it's going to engage the black community.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm talking with Michael Steele, chairman of GOPAC, and pollster Frank Luntz. And we're talking about today's Republican presidential forum, concerned with issues important to minority voters and the decision by the top GOP contenders not to participate in that forum.

Frank Luntz, though, to be fair, most of the top Democrats have declined to participate in a forum being sponsored by Fox News, which is also co-sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus.

Dr. LUNTZ: Well…

MARTIN: Very few people raising a ruckus about that.

Dr. LUNTZ: That's a mistake, and that's wrong. And that was an effort by John Edwards to attempt to politicize Fox News. And what we then found out was that Edwards had collected somewhere in the neighborhood of three-quarters of a million dollars from NewsCorps for a book that he published. What the voters are asking for today is to hear from all candidates on all issues. If Newt Gingrich were a candidate now, he'd be participating in this debate. If Jack Kemp were running, he'd be participating.

So it's not all Republicans that are saying no. But they made a calculated decision that they did not want to be booed. And one could understand after watching what happened in New Orleans, the anger and hostility from certain communities in this country towards government, towards Washington and towards the people in power. And the very first step towards addressing that hostility is listening.

And you know what? If you got to take some crap, it's okay. I guess, you don't usually use that word on NPR. But if that's what it takes, then you should be willing to do it.

MARTIN: And you're saying that just the willingness to stand up there and be accountable and be heard and talk to people as opposed to about them would have paid some benefits.

But, Frank, would it really have paid off in numbers? I think if - from the standpoint of one of the campaigns, their argument is, you know, George Bush -George W. Bush has historically, you know, low numbers in the African-American community, did have some improvement in the Latino community from sort of previous Republican national candidates. But as a calculation, I'm not going to even break double digits in these communities, so why bother?

Mr. LUNTZ: One of the reasons why I'm not active in electoral politics and why I've became a commentator for Fox and other networks is that there are some things that you don't make a political calculation about. There are some things that are more important than whether you're going to win a few hundred votes there or a few thousand votes in some other place. You have to, and you set it in your language.

The president of the United States is president of all the people. And when you have a situation which we have right now, where there are certain communities that feel completely cut out, then it is the responsibility of both political parties. And you're right. The Democrats should be participating on Fox. The Republicans should be participating in the PBS debate. We have a responsibility to be president of all America.

Mr. STEELE: But the key thing, as well, on top of that, is I don't need to get 60 percent of the black vote to win an election. George Bush is president of the United States today because in the state of Ohio, 16 percent of the black vote went to the president, and that gave him the state. You can't refute that fact now. I mean, it's been proven. It's been shown that that was the difference in Ohio. The African-American community - a lowly 16 percent - won the presidency.

So as we get ready to go into 2008, don't sit here and tell me that I need to get 60 percent of the black vote. You just need to show up and post and have a conversation with my community and tell them why your policies will be better, why it's important to invest your - political interests in both parties and see what comes from that.

You know, if you engage people, if you go to them and talk to them, hey, you'll never know. You'd be surprised who may - who'll vote for you.

MARTIN: All right.

Mr. LUNTZ: Even take you one step further. Listen.

Mr. STEELE: Yes.

Mr. LUNTZ: You just stand there, and if people need to get it out of their system, stand back and listen to the community because you're going to learn something when you listen.

MARTIN: And speaking of listening, we thank you for letting us listen to you. Frank Luntz is chairman of a polling firm in Virginia and author of "Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear." He joined us on the phone from Charlotte, North Carolina.

We're also joined by Michael Steele, former lieutenant governor of Maryland and currently the chairman of GOPAC, a nonprofit that trains Republican candidates for state and local office. He was kind enough to join us here in the studio.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. LUNTZ: Thank you. Absolutely.

Mr. STEELE: My pleasure.

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