Debate Questioners on GOP Presidential Forum, Absences

Morgan State University, a historically black college in Maryland, recently hosted a PBS-sponsored Republican presidential debate yesterday. Noticeably, four of top Republican White House contenders were missing in action. Cynthia Tucker, Editorial Page Editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Ray Suarez, Senior Correspondent for PBS' The News Hour, offer analysis of the candidates.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, dining with Bill O'Reilly and Ken Burns' smack down with Latinos over his World War II documentary. The Barbershop crew gives their take on all of it - they're next.

But first, 10 Republicans are vying for the White House. Last night, six of them made an appeal to minority voters during a forum at Morgan State University, an historically black college in Baltimore. It was the second of two debates sponsored by PBS and organized by radio and TV personality Tavis Smiley that was designed to showcase issues of particular concern to minorities. The first in June was attended by all the Democratic contenders.

We're joined now by two of the journalists who led the questioning of last night's candidates. Ray Suarez, senior correspondent for The NewsHour on PBS, and a former NPR host. You know, we have to claim you. And Cynthia Tucker, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial page editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Welcome to you both and thank you so much.

Mr. RAY SUAREZ (Senior Correspondent, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer; Former NPR Host): It's great to be back here.

Ms. CYNTHIA TUCKER (Editorial Page Editor, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution): It is good to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: And it's great to have you.

And let's start by pointing out that the four candidates leading in the polls did not attend, and that point was not lost on anybody including the candidates who did come. Here is Sam Brownback.

I'm sorry. I thought we have that clip. The Sam Brownback clip.

(Soundbite of debate forum)

Senator SAM BROWNBACK (Republican, Kansas; Presidential Candidate): Thank you very much for having us here. And I want to say just at the outset, I apologize for the candidates that aren't here. I think this is a disgrace that they're not here.

(Soundbite of applause)

Sen. BROWNBACK: I think it's a disgrace for our country. I think it's bad for our party, and I don't think it's good for our future.

MARTIN: Cynthia Tucker, did the absence of the four top contenders - Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney - did that cast appall over the proceedings?

Ms. TUCKER: Well, I think, in fact, it may have had the opposite effect. It drew a lot of attention to this particular debate because the controversy had gotten so much attention, the controversy over the failure of the four leading candidates to appear.

There were many leading Republicans who urged them to attend, asked them to please change your minds. They've got a lot of news coverage, so I think this debate may have gotten more attention than it did otherwise. And, of course, it gave the second tier, if you will, an opportunity to present themselves to voters who had probably not paid them very much attention.

MARTIN: Ray, what do you think about that?

Mr. SUAREZ: Well, the big four - Thompson, Romney, Giuliani and McCain - breath up so much of the breathable oxygen in the Republican field, that not having them there gave a chance to really see some of these other candidates, hear what they had to say and gave them the opportunity to let it rip.

So I guess, it was disappointing for me because I want to talk to all of them. But it was a big opportunity for those who did show.

MARTIN: I talked to - yesterday - I talked to former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele who is African-American and who'd been, who's a former state party Republican chairman and who had been part of the group trying to get all the candidates to come and he told me that he thought that they were afraid of being booed.

Ms. TUCKER: Oh, you know, there - one of the more interesting thing about that debate was how much clapping and cheering there was going on to various answers, even to answers that some might believe are adverse to positions historically taken by black advocacy groups.

There were those in the forum who were very critical of welfare, for example, I remember Congressman Tom Tancredo made a point of that.

Mr. SUAREZ: And got a big hand.

Ms. TUCKER: And got a big hand for it. Alan Keyes was all over his morality, morality, morality, decline of the black family. One never knows exactly why the former ambassador was being cheered, whether it was just because he was such a preacher or because people genuinely agreed with him but he got raucous applause, too.

MARTIN: Could have been his verbal dexterity.

Ms. TUCKER: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TUCKER: But it was a very friendly and supportive audience.

MARTIN: It was also more diverse, Ray, than I think some people might have been expecting. I don't know whether that was, whether you can gauge that, but if the candidates all brought their posses with them or people on the…

Mr. SUAREZ: Well, a lot of the tickets filtered out through Republican circles, so you were guaranteed a much more racially diverse audience than the one at Howard University for the Democratic event back in June where there was a nearly entirely black auditorium there.

Here, it was pretty well divided because Tavis Smiley, the host of the debate, made sure that tickets went out through various channels that we guarantee all kinds of people were there.

MARTIN: But it had to be said that the crowd at the Howard debate in which I participated - a lot of the folks were connected to the campaigns too. So yeah, that was in a - you know, I mean, (unintelligible) come on, who are we kidding?

Mr. SUAREZ: It just dawned on as many black…

MARTIN: The candidates want their people…

Mr. SUAREZ: …Republicans, Michel.

MARTIN: Sure. That's true and it didn't have as many of their, sort of, friends. So let's talk about some of the highlights and lowlights. Were there any moments simply that, any answers that particularly surprised you and stood out for you?

Ms. TUCKER: Well, I don't mean to score the debate here. But I thought that a couple of the candidates were surprisingly good in giving nuanced answers on issues of concern to black Americans. And that was Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Senator Sam Brownback.

I thought that they in particular had an opportunity to show themselves, especially to black Americans and show that they were sensitive to the issues that concerned black Americans.

MARTIN: I think we have a clip from Mike Huckabee, the Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. Do we have now? I think I'd like to hear that. Let's hear it.

Well, we have a little - having a little trouble here. The…

(Soundbite of debate forum)

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Republican Governor, Arkansas): I probably dislike the death penalty more than anybody on this stage, but for a very different reason. I've actually had to carry it out. More than any governor in my state's history, I had to carry out the death penalty because that was my job. I did it because I believed after reading every page of every transcript and everything in that file, it was the only conclusion we could come to. But I didn't enjoy it.

MARTIN: I also notice that you asked about D.C. Voting Rights, which is an issue that I think a lot of people don't necessarily see. I think there's a divide on this. I think a lot of African-Americans see this as a civil rights issue and a lot of other people don't, you know, what's the issue - it's a constitutional issue. I noticed that Mike Huckabee also weighed in on that on the side of D.C. Voting Rights.

Ms. TUCKER: Indeed he did. I have to tell you that I may be wrong about this, but I have the feeling that Mike Huckabee, having been governor of Arkansas, which has a substantial black voting base and black population, has paid attention to issues that are of concerned to black Americans in a way that, say, a congressman from Colorado may not have. And I think that showed. And, yes, he did come out in support of voting representations for D.C.

MARTIN: And you mentioned Tom Tancredo. I want to play that clip in just a minute as soon as it's ready, where he, you know, some did not be clearly want yet running for the center where they were very clearly sort of showing this sort of ideological distinction between themselves and the Democrats. I thought that Tom Tancredo's comments about the economic opportunity show that - I think we can play that clip.

(Soundbite of debate forum)

Representative TOM TANCREDO (Republican, Colorado): And I tell you this. One of the things that I will do as president of the United States to increase the economic opportunities for every American, especially people in the lower economic rung of the ladder in America, is to reduce the flow of illegal immigration into this country, which depresses wage rates for the lowest income earners in this country. And it's got to be dealt with. It's got to be dealt with forcefully and I tell you, yes, black America, brown America, white America, all will be enhanced by actually enforcing our laws.

MARTIN: Ray, I wanted to ask about that. How do you think an answer like that plays?

Mr. SUAREZ: Well, it's a very interesting angle to take and several of the candidates did it through the night. They said to black people: Illegal immigration is hurting you because it lowers your wage rates. It creates competition at the bottom rungs of the ladder and some of them spun a history that isn't quite grounded, in fact, in reality that traced the difficulties for working-class black people through the rise in immigration.

They didn't mention China. They didn't mention the de-industrialization of American urban areas where black labor force participation rates in the 1950s were extremely high. And then started to drop off when the urban centers in the Midwest and the Northeast where a lot of the black working class was located, started to die on the vine, but they chose last night to point the finger instead at people coming from other parts of the world to work. It was an interesting thing because at various points through the evening, this was portrayed as speaking broadly to minority voters and all people of color. And the candidates took this opportunity to drive a wedge to show that there's a difference in the class interests and the economic interests of black and brown Americans.

MARTIN: Did you see it that way, Cynthia?

Ms. TUCKER: Well, this is Tom Tancredo's position, and so it was not any great surprise to me that he did it. But Ray is right, other candidates just also did it. Alan Keyes, the former ambassador who is black, picked up the same point and hammer that in as well. And they…

MARTIN: And - pardon me, I think it would be worth noting that none of the candidates, except for John McCain - accepted an invitation to a forum hosted by Univision and the University of Florida. And - you know, who knows why some said scheduling issues - some said that the fact that the forum, the questions were all posed in Spanish and some of them wanted to make a statement about, you know, what they consider the (unintelligible) in English, but I did think it note where they - none of them accepted an opportunity to speak primarily to Latino voters.

Ms. TUCKER: Well, I think that one of the things that we see happening now in the politicosphere(ph) is that it is less safe and less politically correct, if you will, to be that harsh toward black Americans. But it is politically safe to be harsh toward Latinos through the prism of (unintelligible) illegal immigration, and while they say, we just mean illegal immigration if you listen at them very carefully. In fact, they're talking about Latino immigrants as a whole. So I think that particularly on the Republican side, they find that a much safer group to attack and disparage than they do black Americans at this point.

If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And I'm speaking with journalists Cynthia Tucker and Ray Suarez. There were questioners at last night's Republican presidential forum at Morgan State University. Were there any, Ray, moments that were cringe-worthy that everybody (unintelligible), ah, what was that?

Mr. SUAREZ: Well, when I asked each of them to explain how, as president, they would create more access to quality health care, because I pointed out the really stark statistics between the access to quality health care between Americans in general and black and Latin Americans in particular, it was a very telling moment because Tom Tancredo wouldn't disaggregate at all. He fell back into that, oh, I don't like to divide people thing as if it wasn't true that you're two and a half times more likely to be insured if you're white than if you're Hispanic, and then just gave a sort of generic answer. Alan Keyes fell back on bringing back the family as if bringing back the family would reopen the hospitals that have closed in inner city neighborhoods around the country and somehow bring doctors back to the barrio.

There were moments where they fell back on the talking points that they've been using in every debate instead of answering the particular interests, which were posed by Cynthia's questions, by Juan Williams' questions, by my questions to elicit a particular cut at the issues that were of interest to black and brown voters.

MARTIN: Cynthia?

Ms. TUCKER: There was another issue where I thought several of the responses were similarly tone deaf - and that was on a criminal justice question - where, I believe, it was Juan Williams, who asked about the Jena Six, brought that issue up as a way of talking about disparities in the criminal justice system. Now, I have to say there was a surprisingly good answer from Ron Paul, the good Libertarian, who at least knew that drug sentencing is - there are a lot of disparities in drug sentencing between the whites who arrested incidents and black and brown offenders who are arrested incidents?

Mr. SUAREZ: And he knew the numbers too.

Ms. TUCKER: He absolutely knew the numbers, knew the issue cold…

MARTIN: Well, we actually have that clip. Let's play it.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Representative RON PAUL (Republican, Texas): I would like to believe that if we had a freer society, it will take care of blacks and white and everybody equally because we're all individuals. And to me, that is so important. But if we have equal justice under the law, I think it would be a big improvement. If we had a probably a repeal of most of the federal laws on drugs and the unfairness on how blacks are treated with these drug loss, it would be a tremendous improvement.

MARTIN: It's interesting to me that the perceived outliers in both fields -Mike Gravel on the Democratic side and Ron Paul on the Republican side - are the ones who are hitting the war on drugs most directly. I'm just wonder why that is. I mean, they're both, you know, elected office holders sort of at one point. Ron Paul is sitting member of Congress. Mike Gravel is a former member -I don't know. I was wondering what that means?

Ms. TUCKER: Well, they are liberated enough to tell the truth. They have nothing to lose. They must know themselves that they're very unlikely to win their party's nomination so they can say what they really think. I think it was Michael Kinsley who once said that a gaff in Washington is when a politician makes a mistake and tell the truth. So these gentlemen don't mind hitting home on an issue that we all know to be true, but more mainstream politicians are afraid to speak up for fear of offending the law and order sensibilities at so many voters.

MARTIN: And speaking of which, I have to say a cringe-worthy moment for me was when Congressman Duncan Hunter, you asked about the D.C. voting rights as a civil rights issue and said he might be more interested if the District of Columbia would repeal its gun control laws. And I thought, you know, that's the opposite(ph) of voting right - the whole point of voting rights is that people can determine for themselves what they - and so he's saying, sure, you can vote as long as you agree with me on this particular - I found that interesting. Just a minute we have left. Briefly, Ray and Cynthia, is there a question you would have liked to have asked that you didn't get a chance to ask?

Mr. SUAREZ: Well, you know, black and brown Americans depend on effective delivery of government services more than other Americans because they rely more heavily on public schooling, public transportation, public provision of health care. The next president's going to preside over a $10-trillion government, it's $10 trillion in the whole. And I wanted to ask them, these guys, all believe in less and less and less government whether black and brown people could have much hope that those services would be funded if the government's hands are tied because so much money's been borrowed already.

MARTIN: Okay. Good question. Cynthia?

Ms. TUCKER: I wish we have had time to get around to housing affordability and particularly the subprime crisis in mortgages, which has affected black and brown homeowners disproportionately.

MARTIN: All right. Very good. Well, maybe, we'll invite them and maybe they'll come and talk to us. Who knows? And I hope you'll come back and see us some time.

Mr. SUAREZ: Any time.

MARTIN: My pleasure to have you here.

Ms. TUCKER: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Cynthia Tucker is a Pulitzer Prize winner, editorial page editor at the Atlanta General Constitution. Ray Suarez is a senior correspondent for the News Hour on PBS and our former NPR host, and joined us here in our Washington studios. Thank you both so much for being with us.

Mr. SUAREZ: Great to see you.

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