A former member of the House Republican congressional leadership -- and the last African-American to serve as a member of the GOP in Congress -- harshly criticized Tuesday the decision of the Republican presidential front-runners to not attend a debate focused on minority issues.
"I think the best that comes out of stupid decisions like this," said former Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts, is "that African-Americans might say, 'Was it because of my skin color?' Now, maybe it wasn't, but African-Americans do say, 'It crossed my mind.'"
All four GOP presidential front-runners -- former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson -- have said they will not attend a PBS debate at a historically black college in Baltimore hosted by Tavis Smiley.
The invitations were extended in March, but the front-runners have claimed scheduling conflicts. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who's weighing getting into the race, called that excuse "baloney" and called the no-shows "fundamentally wrong." On "Good Morning America" today, Gingrich said GOP candidates are making a mistake because "African-Americans have been hurt more by the failures of government" than any other group.
Watts pointed out that some of the candidates with more liberal histories on issues such as guns and abortion have reached out to conservative groups that don't share their views.
Watts was the former chairman of the House GOP caucus, and served in Congress from 1995 until 2003.
"You kind of scratch your head thinking why are they making decisions like that?" Watts said. He speculated the candidates don't have any African-American staffers who "could say to them, 'You're making a huge mistake strategically by not at least reaching out and talking to this demographic.'"
On "The Tonight Show" last week, Smiley protested the decision by the front-runners. "What does it say when you don't think that black issues and brown issues and issues for red and yellow -- what does it say when you don't think that all of us are valuable in this process?" he asked.
African-Americans are the most reliably Democratic voters around, with up to 90 percent voting Democratic in the last five presidential elections, but Watts and other Republicans including former vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp, and former RNC chairman Ken Mehlman, have said that's exactly why Republicans need to reach out to them.
These no-shows come just days after the Spanish-language channel Univision canceled its debate because only one of the 11 Republican candidates -- McCain -- accepted.
In 2004 President Bush scored better with Hispanics than previous Republicans, garnering 44 percent of the vote, according to exit polls. But the recent debate over immigration reform may drive those voters back to Democrats in 2008.
PBS correspondent Ray Suarez, a panelist in Thursday's debate, said there are imperatives beyond getting votes. "There are issues in the campaign as it's being run in this conventional way that will never get covered unless you convene debates of this type," Suarez said. Candidates could go through a whole campaign without ever talking about issues such as diabetes, hypertension, the high rate of asthma in the inner cities, he said. "These are issues that play differently outside those minority groups. And you could run a whole campaign without ever talking about them unless you talk specifically to blacks and Latinos about their problems."
ABC's Cindy Smith and Sheila Evans contributed to this report.