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Why Republican Presidential Candidates Skipped the Morgan State Debate

The leading Republican presidential candidates’ inability to find their way to Morgan State University last night may have little to no impact in the short-term, but will probably hurt the GOP nominee in next year’s general election, says one leading policy expert.

The front runners, including former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, opted not to attend a candidates’ forum at the historically Black university hosted by PBS television host Tavis Smiley. Recent entrant Fred Thompson, the Law & Order star and former Tennessee senator, also declined an invitation to attend. They all cited scheduling conflicts.

“The short-term impact of their absenteeism will be minimal,” says Dr. Michael K. Fauntroy, an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University in Virginia and author of Republicans and the Black Vote.

“But Black and brown voters will remember this later on,” Fauntroy adds. “Those who are on the fence will recall this, and Republicans will lose those votes.”

Fauntroy says the GOP is concerned about African-American and Latino voters, but they are more worried about their White, conservative base. “They’ve concluded that the number of potential Black voters they may lose is lower than the number of conservative White voters they would lose by cowering to pressure and appearing at the debate,” Fauntroy tells Diverse.

The Republican candidates also choose to skip the debate out of fear, Fauntroy adds. “They are afraid they will be exposed for having no agenda of interest to Black people. And they also don’t want to be exposed for their lack of knowledge of Black issues.”

A spokesman for the Republican National Committee did not address the issues raised by Fauntroy and others. Instead, the spokesman elaborated on homeownership gains by minorities under President Bush’s administration and the GOP’s emphasis on entrepreneurship.

Fauntroy says that the RNC platform is a distraction from criminal justice and civil rights enforcement issues many African-American and Latino voters care about. “They do the best that they can,” Fauntroy says. “But their best is woefully short when it comes to issues that are most important to African-American and Latino people.”

A short distance from the Baltimore campus where yesterday’s debate took place, a group of Black Republicans are meeting in Washington, D.C. this week. They expressed both disappointment and frustration with their party’s leading presidential candidates for not showing up at Morgan State.

There was some concern about Smiley hosting the debate, says Donald E. Scoggins, president of Republicans for Black Empowerment, a national organization established to introduce an alternative political voice in the Black community.

“There was concern that he [Smiley] was a trouble-maker because of some things he has done in the past. They didn’t want to be set up,” says Scoggins, who scolded the candidates for turning down the opportunity to debate before a largely African-American audience.

Scoggins says he was asked to help make sure Black Republicans filled the auditorium, so candidates didn’t have to fear that the Morgan State audience would be hostile.

All of the major Democratic candidates attended a similar debate hosted by Smiley in June.

Major GOP candidates have declined invitations to address other largely minority audiences, including one hosted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League. With the exception of Sen. McCain, Republicans also nixed an appearance at a forum televised by Spanish-language television, Univision. A GOP spokeswoman says negotiations are ongoing to broadcast the Univision debate at a later time.

By not showing up at last night’s debate, Fauntroy says, the major Republican candidates blew another opportunity to reach Black America. It shows that the party is still not serious about winning Black and brown votes, he adds.

Scoggins countered that leading Republican candidates don’t clearly understand the issues important to the Black community, which he calls “a sad commentary.” He agrees with Fauntroy that leading GOP candidates chose not to attend the debate because they were afraid of a backlash from conservative voters. “What makes it worse is that you are spending billions, trillions of dollars overseas to bring democracy to another country, but you’re afraid to even talk to people right here at home. That says a lot.”

Scoggins, however, stopped short of saying that the snub will hurt the GOP’s chances among Black voters in 2008. “The election is a year away,” he says. “In politics, that is a lifetime. But that still doesn’t leave a lot of time to get your message together.”

Six Republican contenders that did show up to present their views were Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.), Rep. Ron Paul (Texas), Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) and late entrant Alan Keyes, a former ambassador who lives in Maryland.

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