WASHINGTON — A PBS video previewing the network's Republican presidential candidates forum, set to air tonight from a historically black university, asks, "Can the party of Abraham Lincoln win the hearts and minds of all Americans?"
But none of the GOP's top White House contenders will show up to answer the question, each citing a scheduling conflict.
Instead, viewers will see four empty lecterns on the stage as Tavis Smiley, an African American talk show host, poses questions to five lesser-known candidates: Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine), Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.).
Coming days after the Spanish-language network Univision was forced to postpone its Republican forum because it was rejected by all but one candidate -- Sen. John McCain of Arizona -- the PBS forum has touched off a debate within the GOP over whether its 2008 candidates are trampling on past efforts to draw more minority voters.
"It's a missed opportunity," said former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who would have been the Senate's only black Republican had he won his election bid last year.
Steele, an organizer of the PBS forum, said he had confronted the campaigns in recent days, to no avail. He said that failing to connect with African American voters could be "lethal" in the general election.
Other Republicans have weighed in as well, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and J.C. Watts, a former Oklahoma congressman. Watts, who is black, told ABC's "Good Morning America" this week that the candidates were "stupid" to skip the forum at Morgan State University in Baltimore.
"You kind of scratch your head thinking, 'Why are they making decisions like that?' " Watts said.
Smiley, the event moderator, said he didn't believe the campaigns when they blamed their absences on hectic schedules.
"When you consistently regret invitations to appear in front of black and brown audiences, I tend to think that's a pattern and not a scheduling problem," Smiley said in an interview Wednesday.
Just last year, the GOP backed three black candidates in major statewide races, including in the key battlegrounds of Ohio and Pennsylvania, and party leaders were promising aggressive outreach to black voters as part of a broader strategy to build a long-lasting majority. Many believe that President Bush's courtship of African Americans in certain states ensured his reelection in 2004.
Critics say the 2008 candidates' decisions reflect the reality that the Republican nomination will be decided by the party's overwhelmingly white, conservative base. Answering questions on issues such as urban blight, AIDS, the government response to Hurricane Katrina and immigration might only hurt the top candidates, all of whom have faced scrutiny over their conservative credentials.
The candidates' absence tonight will come a little more than two years after then-Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman declared at an NAACP meeting that "we were wrong" when the GOP "gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization."
Aides blame the absences on the competing demands of a hectic campaign that has forced candidates to turn down many requests.
The forum is being held just days before the end of the year's third-quarter fundraising period, and candidates are scrambling to raise as much money as possible so they can show their strength in soon-to-be-released fundraising reports.
"While we would love to participate in every debate we are invited to, the accelerated primary calendar and fundraising demands have forced us to make some tough decisions about how many debates we can realistically accept," said Maria Comella, spokeswoman for one Republican front-runner, former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
Giuliani is scheduled to be in Santa Monica this morning, reportedly to announce his endorsement by former California Gov. Pete Wilson. The Giuliani campaign declined to comment pending the formal announcement, which kicks off three days of fundraising and campaigning in the state.
Kevin Madden, a spokesman for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, noted that the campaign recently announced an African American advisory committee in Florida. "This outreach doesn't end because we missed one debate," Madden said.
McCain is scheduled to deliver a foreign policy address tonight in New York.
Steele said he grew frustrated when representatives from four major campaigns suggested that reaching black voters did them no good in the Republican primary. He noted that the candidates also skipped meetings held by the NAACP and the Urban League.
"At some point they're going to have to address my community," Steele said.
Though much of the party's outreach in recent years has been pressed by strategists for Bush, the president himself has declined to take his party's candidates to task for skipping the minority forums. Instead, Bush has predicted that the party's outreach would continue once a nominee was chosen.
"I think you'll see the nominee of the party -- whoever he is -- will head into the African American community with a positive message and, frankly, a good record as a result of compassionate conservatism," he told journalist Juan Williams in a White House interview this week.
Five of the Republican presidential candidates will appear at a 90-minute forum at Morgan State University in Baltimore.
It will be broadcast on PBS at 6 p.m.