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Democratic Presidential Hopefuls Debate

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Democratic Presidential Hopefuls Debate

Election 2008

Democratic Presidential Hopefuls Debate

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Just hours after yesterday's Supreme Court ruling on school desegregation, all eight Democratic presidential candidates appeared before a mostly African-American audience at Howard University in Washington. The forum focused on domestic issues important to African-Americans.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: This was the third time all the Democrats had appeared on stage together. But the first time, there were no questions about Iraq, the biggest source of contention among them. This time, the candidates did little to highlight their differences. All of them denounced yesterday's Supreme Court decision restricting the use of race in public school desegregation plans.

Illinois Senator Barack Obama, who was clearly the audience favorite, reminded the crowd that it was on the campus of this historically black college that Thurgood Marshall and his legal team developed the arguments that won the landmark Brown versus Board of Education case.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): And if it hadn't been for them, I would not be standing here today.

(Soundbite of applause)

Sen. OBAMA: We have made enormous progress, but the progress we have made is not good enough. And it is absolutely critical for us to recognize that there are going to be responsibilities on the part of African-Americans and other groups to rise up out of the problems that we face, but there's also got to be political will in the White House to make that happen.

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson also made it personal.

Governor BILL RICHARDSON (Democrat, New Mexico): Issues of diversity for me, the first Latino to run for president, aren't talking points. They're facts of life.

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: There's a fierce contest on for African-American votes in the Democratic primary, mainly between the two leading candidates: Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton. Last night, Clinton got a standing ovation when she suggested there was racism behind the approach to AIDS.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): If HIV/AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country.

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: Senator Clinton, who's running on her experience, took every opportunity to remind the crowd about her accomplishments in the Senate and her husband's record in the White House on the economy, taxes and on AIDS.

Sen. CLINTON: If we don't begin to take it seriously and address it the way we did back in the '90s, we will never get the services and the public education that we need.

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: Last night's event was a forum, not a debate. Each candidate got to answer every question for the same amount of time. There were no follow-up questions and no invitations to engage each other. On education, poverty, criminal justice and jobs, for the most part, the candidates agreed with each other and with the questioners.

Unidentified Man: Do you agree that the rich aren't paying their fair share of taxes? And if so, what would you do about it?

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democratic Senator, North Carolina): People who have done well ought to have more responsibility to pay back to the country and to the community and those around them. We have a capital gains rate 15 percent, which is the rate that most people pay on their investment income, like Warren Buffet, is significantly lower than the tax rate that his secretary pays.

Unidentified Man: Senator Edwards...

Mr. EDWARDS: That's not right. There is a moral disconnect.

LIASSON: That was former vice presidential candidate John Edwards, who's made income inequality the centerpiece of his campaign. Like all the others, Senator Joseph Biden said he wants to get rid of President Bush's tax cuts for the richest Americans.

Senator JOSEPH BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware): I would eliminate the tax cuts of the wealthy. They didn't ask for it. And they don't need it. The first time in our history since we had the federal income tax, we're in a position where those who are the wage earners are paying a bigger chunk than they should. It's got to shift back.

LIASSON: On Katrina, the issue that's come to represent the neglect of African-Americans by the Bush administration, the Democrats were asked if they would support a federal law guaranteeing displaced hurricane victims the right and resources to return to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Every Democrat agreed. Here's Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, followed by Barack Obama.

Senator CHRIS DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): I can think of no better way to have New Orleans and Katrina, that event become a symbol of what we can do right in this country by giving people the opportunity to come back and the support they will need to regain their lives. This is the least we ought to be able to do, to see to it they get their lives back together.

Sen. OBAMA: I think that what's most important, though, that we have a president who is in touch with the needs of New Orleans before the hurricanes hits, because part of the reason that we have such a tragedy was the assumption that everybody could jump in their SUVs, load up with some sparkling water and check in to the nearest hotel.

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: Tomorrow, all the Democrats will be courting another key voting bloc when they appear together in Orlando, Florida, at the annual meeting of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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