RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
There were a lot of empty podiums at last night's Republican presidential debate at Morgan State University in Baltimore. The event was held at the historically black university and broadcast on public television as a way to focus on issues important to African-Americans. But the four Republican candidates leading in the polls - Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, John McCain and Fred Thompson - did not show up. Each cited scheduling conflicts.
NPR's Don Gonyea reports.
DON GONYEA: This may be known as the presidential debate that sparked a separate debate of its own even before it took place.
Organized by TV and radio host and commentator Tavis Smiley and PBS, it followed a similar forum held three months ago featuring all of the Democratic candidates. But when it came time for the GOP event, the regrets came in from the leading contenders. They wouldn't be attending. Smiley saw it as a snub.
President Bush last week said the party should be reaching out to minorities. But others like conservative African-American newspaper columnist Star Parker argue that there is no reason to attend such a debate because so few blacks participate in GOP primaries.
Ms. STAR PARKER (Author; Newspaper Columnist; Co-host, "The View"): African-Americans overwhelmingly have rejected the Republican Party and have determined to stay in the Democrat Party. We're having an internal discussion right in the Republican Party.
GONYEA: Parkers says the Republican nominee can reach out to African-Americans during the general election. Last night, there was no sympathy for that argument. Nationally syndicated morning radio host Tom Joyner opened the proceedings.
(Soundbite of debate forum)
Mr. TOM JOYNER (Radio Host, "The Tom Joyner Morning Show"): Let me take a moment right here and now to say hello to those of you viewing from home -Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Senator John McCain, Governor Mitt Romney and Senator Fred Thompson.
(Soundbite of cheers)
GONYEA: Each has cited a scheduling conflict as their excuse. Each was attending fundraisers and other campaign events. Giuliani and Romney in California, Thompson in Tennessee, and McCain in New York. The six candidates who did attend last night took the stage to appreciative applause. Moderator Tavis Smiley started things off with this question.
Mr. TAVIS SMILEY (Author; Journalist; Political Commentator; Host): Starting with you, Governor Mike Huckabee, please tell me and this audience in your own words why you chose to be here tonight and what you say to those who chose not to be here tonight?
GONYEA: Huckabee is the former Arkansas governor.
Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Republican Arkansas Governor): I want to be president of the United States not just the president of the Republican Party. Frankly, I'm embarrassed. I'm embarrassed for our party and I'm embarrassed for those who did not come.
GONYEA: Then it was Texas Congressman Ron Paul's turn, a libertarian who wants smaller government. Paul was on message.
Representative RON PAUL (Republican, Texas): Well, the main reason I'm here is because I was invited and I'm delighted that I was invited. And I'm very pleased because I go wherever I'm invited to talk about freedom.
GONYEA: Next came Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas.
Senator SAM BROWNBACK (Republican, Kansas; Presidential Candidate): I want to say just at the offset, I apologize for the candidates that aren't here. I think this is a disgrace that they're not here.
(Soudbite of applause)
Sen. BROWNBACK: You know, you grow political parties by expanding your base. What they're doing is sending a message of narrowing the base.
GONYEA: Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, an outspoken opponent of illegal immigration, said he'd already appeared before African-American audiences.
Representative TOM TANCREDO (Republican, Colorado): The last time I was in an event of this nature it was NAACP convention and I was the only Republican that showed up. So I am glad that my colleagues have joined me.
(Soundbite of applause)
GONYEA: Though Tancredo later insisted that focusing on race as an issue is not the best policy approach. Then it was California Congressman Duncan Hunter's turn. He chose not to talk about race in that answer.
Representative DUNCAN HUNTER (Republican, California; Presidential Candidate): Tonight, we have about 160,000 Americans in Iraq in a war. We have over 20,000 of our uniform personnel in Afghanistan. And I'm going to talk tonight about how we leave Iraq in victory.
GONYEA: Finally, the newest entrant into the Republican contest, the only African-American candidate on the stage, conservative writer and activist Alan Keyes, who has run for president twice never making much of a showing.
Mr. ALAN KEYES (Former Diplomat, Presidential Candidate): Now, I wouldn't want to seem to be the fellow who's going to speak up in defense of our absent colleagues here, but I think it is a little unfair to assume that they didn't show up tonight because they were sending a message of some negative kind to the black community.
GONYEA: Keyes went on to suggest that they may not have shown up because they're afraid to debate one single black person - him. Over the next hour, topics ranged from the death penalty to integration of schools, to the Jena Six case in Louisiana and injustices minorities encounter in the U.S. judicial system.
It was an unusually lively debate, at least in part, because none of these candidates registers above three percent in the latest Gallup Poll. Its frontrunners who tend to be cautious - these hopefuls are free to let it rip in hopes of getting some attention.
After the event, Smiley said the no-shows missed an opportunity.
Mr. SMILEY: We learned tonight that people of color are open to hearing what Republicans have to say on the issues that matter to them.
GONYEA: Smiley noted that none of the candidates who attended seemed to be out of their way to woo the African-American vote. The point, he said, is that the dialogue took place.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, Baltimore.
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