June 29, 2007 — -- Thursday's third Democratic presidential debate, which came just hours after a Supreme Court decision curtailing the use of race in public school assignments, featured broad agreement among the eight Democrats vying for their party's presidential nomination that while the nation has made progress on issues of race, there is much more work to be done.
"You can look at this decision today, which turned the clock back on the promise of Brown v. Board of Education, that was resting on the fact that children are better off if they are part of a diverse, integrated society" said Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., of the 5-4 Court ruling. "So, yes, we have come a long way. But, yes, we have a long way to go. The march is not finished."
Sen. Barack Obama's, D-Ill., comments on the continuing importance of race were deeply personal. Obama, who would be the nation's first African-American president, sought to connect with the mostly black audience by pointing to the role that Thurgood Marshall and Howard University, the site of Thursday's debate, played in the 1954 landmark Brown decision that led to the desegregation of the nation's public schools.
"Thank you to all of you who have made me who I am," said Obama of Marshall, who graduated from Howard's law school. "You know, this is where Thurgood Marshall and the team from Brown crafted their strategy. And if it hadn't been for them, I would not be standing here today."
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., responded to the Court decision by touting his efforts to oppose President Bush's Supreme Court nominees as a senior member of the Judiciary Committee.
"As some of you know, I was awfully tough on Roberts and Alito," said Biden. "They have turned the Court upside down."
The debate, which focused mostly on domestic issues and steered clear of the contentious issue of Iraq, was free of the clashes among the top-tier candidates that were present when the Democrats held their second debate in New Hampshire.
For the first time in a debate this election cycle, the disproportionate incidence of HIV/AIDS among African-American women was addressed.
"If HIV/AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country," said Clinton.
Her comments, which were met with enthusiastic applause, were almost instantaneously posted to the Internet by the Clinton campaign.
The subject of HIV testing led to an exchange between Obama and Biden which was met with laughter from the audience.
After making reference to an HIV test taken by Obama, Biden made reference to "communities engaged in denial."
In an effort to underscore that he is not in denial about being gay, Obama responded to Biden's "denial" comments by saying: "I don't want any confusion here about what's going on," he said. "I was tested with my wife."
While addressing the disproportionate number of African-Americans in the nation's prisons, the candidates voiced broad support for changing the disparity in the sentences which are meted out for cocaine versus crack.
"Mandatory minimum sentences have been a disaster," said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn, before calling for an end to the distinction between crack, which is seen as being more common in the African-American community, and more expensive powder cocaine, which is seen as being more commonly used by whites.
Clinton and Edwards joined Dodd in voicing concern about crack versus cocaine sentencing disparities.
"The criminal justice system is not color blind," said Obama, who worked to address the crack versus cocaine disparity as an Illinois state legislator.
On the issue of tax fairness, Clinton invoked a recent public meeting she had with Warren Buffet, the billionaire investor who has argued that the wealthiest Americans pay a lower effective tax rate than lower-income Americans due, in part, to the income cap used when assessing Social Security payroll taxes.
"Middle class and working families are paying a much higher percentage of their income -- that was Warren Buffet's position," said Clinton, "that he pays about 17 percent, because don't forget it's the payroll tax plus the income tax. And when you cut off the contribution at $90,000, $95,000, that's a lot of money between $95,000 and the $46 million that Warren Buffet made last year. And he's honest enough to say, 'Look, tax me because I'm a patriotic American and I want to make sure our country stays strong and is fair.'"
"So, yes we have to change the tax system," Clinton said, "and we've got to get back to having those with the most contribute to this country."
Following the debate, Clinton aides argued that the former first lady was not endorsing a change to the Social Security tax cap and sought to distance her from Buffet's position.
"It's not ruled in or out," Clinton strategist Mark Penn told ABC News. "She was just explaining the inequity that Warren Buffet was pointing out."
Clinton spokesman Phil Singer added: "She was describing why Warren Buffet pays less in taxes than his secretary -- not taking a policy position."
Raising the tax cap on Social Security is a potentially explosive issue. Although it carries the potential to make the tax code more progressive, it could also be tantamount to a major tax increase on upper-income Amercans.
The biggest laugh of the night belonged to PBS' Tavis Smiley, the debate's moderator. After Dodd went over his allotted time answering a question about HIV/AIDS, the Connecticut Democrat quipped in game-show fashion, "I'll take global warming for $600" -- to which Smiley shot back, "Sen. Dodd, I was going to say: Were you Paris Hilton, you'd have an hour, but you're not."
"That was good. That was good, Tavis," said Clinton.
Joining Smiley in the questioning of the candidates were three other journalists of color: NPR's Michel Martin, columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr., and USA Today's DeWayne Wickham.
The Republican presidential candidates participate in a forum moderated by Smiley on Sept. 27 at Morgan State University in Baltimore.
ABC News' Kristina Wong contributed to this report.