Three of the four leading Republican presidential candidates turned down invitations to a PBS debate this month at a historically black college in Baltimore, leading moderator Tavis Smiley on Thursday to accuse them of ignoring minority voters.
Smiley told USA TODAY the rejections are part of a pattern, noting most GOP candidates declined invitations to address several black and Hispanic groups, including a Univision debate for a Latino audience.
"No one should be elected president of this country in 2008 if they think that along the way they can ignore people of color," said Smiley, host of radio and TV talk shows. "If you want to be president of all America, you need to speak to all Americans."
Arizona Sen. John McCain, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney have declined to participate in the Sept. 27 debate at Morgan State University. "I feel good," Smiley said, about the odds of getting former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson. Five candidates trailing in national and state polls will be there.
The Univision debate, co-sponsored by the University of Miami, was scheduled for Sept. 16, but canceled after only one candidate — McCain — accepted. "We're looking for a new date," said Univision spokeswoman Rosemary Mercedes. However, Romney and Giuliani already have declined.
Republican campaigns blamed scheduling conflicts for their candidate's absence from the Baltimore debate, citing, for example, a McCain speech on Iraq and a flurry of fundraising events before the third-quarter deadline on Sept. 30. All eight Democrats participated in their PBS debate at Howard University — and that was on June 28, a similarly frenetic fundraising period.
Kevin Madden, a Romney spokesman, said his candidate has "a very heavy travel schedule" that has led him to decline invitations to several debates, including a CNN/YouTube debate in November.
Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, chairman of the national party, has said GOP candidates are not snubbing Hispanics; they are just busy with other campaign events.
Smiley said he intends to press his case tonight on NBC's Tonight Show with Jay Leno. "We're talking about one 90-minute conversation," he said. "It gives these Republicans a wonderful opportunity. They complain all the time that black and brown voters won't give them a chance. We offer a platform on PBS."
Republican presidential candidates typically receive less than 15% of the black vote in general elections and tend to oppose policies important to some minority voters, such as affirmative action. Right now they are competing for conservative primary voters.
"I understand why they wouldn't want to go," said Michael Fauntroy, a public policy expert at George Mason University and author of a new book called Republicans and the Black Vote. But he said skipping the forum will turn off moderate suburban voters and squander the chance to speak unfiltered to an integrated national TV audience.
There would be plenty to talk about, Fauntroy said. Black voters may have special concerns about the Katrina recovery or the justice system, for example, he said, but "they have the same concerns as everyone else in terms of national security and the economy."
GOP candidates who will be in Baltimore are Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, California Rep. Duncan Hunter, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo.
Republicans had been making headway with Hispanic voters, in large part due to outreach by President Bush. But this year, with the notable exceptions of Bush and McCain, the GOP is identified with pushes to crack down on border enforcement and illegal immigrants already in this country. Polls show Hispanics turning back to Democrats.
Simon Rosenberg, whose New Democrat Network has studied how Democrats can appeal to Hispanics, said Bush and his brother, Jeb, pursued minority outreach when they were governors of Texas and Florida, respectively, as well as in Bush's presidential campaigns. But "the Republican Party right now has become an anti-immigrant party," he said.