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Top GOP contenders skip race-issues debate

Lesser-known hopefuls decry the absence of Thompson, Giuliani, Romney and McCain as hurtful to party image.

September 28, 2007|From Reuters

BALTIMORE — The lesser-known Republican presidential candidates condemned their top rivals Thursday for skipping a debate on minority issues and said their absence hurt the party's image and amplified racial divisions.

Four empty lecterns highlighted the decisions of former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee to skip the debate at historically black Morgan State University.

"Frankly, I'm embarrassed," former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said in the debate, broadcast on PBS. "I'm embarrassed for our party, and I'm embarrassed for those who did not come, because there's long been a divide in this country, and it doesn't get better when we don't show up."

The missing candidates -- the top four Republicans in the 2008 presidential race -- cited scheduling conflicts in skipping the forum, which was designed to address issues of interest to blacks.

Their absence sparked criticism from some Republicans, particularly after the Spanish-language network Univision had to postpone its Republican forum this month because only McCain accepted its invitation.

"I apologize for the candidates that aren't here," said Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas. "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."

Blacks traditionally support the Democratic Party, but Brownback said that the candidates' absence sent the wrong message.

"You grow political parties by expanding your base, by reaching out to people and getting more people," Brownback said. "What they're doing is sending the message of narrowing the base, and that's not the right way to go."

Rep. Duncan Hunter of Alpine likened the debate to a family gathering.

"You know, when we have family reunions and some of the family members don't show up, we do talk about them," Hunter said.

Asked to name a Republican president since Abraham Lincoln who had created a positive legacy for black Americans, Huckabee mentioned President Eisenhower's efforts to ensure the safety of the nine black students who desegregated schools in Arkansas in 1957.

Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado said Ronald Reagan had done something positive for all Americans by increasing liberty.

"I think it is destructive to only talk about the politics of race, and suggest that all of the actions taken, or all of the specific programs that we identify and talk about tonight, should be focused on race," he said.

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