WASHINGTON – Key Republican leaders are encouraging the party’s presidential candidates to rethink their decisions to skip presidential debates focusing on issues important to minorities, fearing a backlash that could further erode the party’s standing with black and Latino voters.
The leading contenders for the Republican nomination have indicated they will not attend the “All American Presidential Forum” organized by African-American talk show host Tavis Smiley, scheduled for Sept. 27 at Morgan State University in Baltimore and airing on PBS.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., all cited scheduling conflicts in their decisions to forgo the debate. All of the top Democratic contenders attended a similar event in June at Howard University.
“We sound like we don’t want immigration. We sound like we don’t want black people to vote for us,” said former New York Rep. Jack Kemp, who was the GOP vice-presidential nominee in 1996. “What are we going to do, meet in a country club in the suburbs one day? If we’re going to be competitive with people of color, we’ve got to ask them for their vote.”
Making matters worse in the eyes of some Republicans is that the decision to bypass the Morgan State forum comes after all of the top GOP candidates save McCain declined invitations earlier this month to a debate on Univision, the most-watched Hispanic television network in the United States. The event was eventually postponed.
“Every one of these candidates I’ve talked to is sincerely committed to offering real choices to African-American and Hispanic voters and in my opinion have records that will appeal to many of these voters,” former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said. “That’s why I hope they’ll reconsider this opportunity to lay out their vision and other opportunities in the future.”
In passing on invitations to the Morgan State forum, the Republicans all cited hectic schedules, noting in particular that September will be a critical month for fundraising after a traditional summer slowdown. With candidates’ fundraising closely scrutinized as a measure of their strength, all are eager to report a showing that reflects enthusiasm for their candidacies.
“We consider every debate invitation equally as they relate to the schedule,’ said Kevin Madden, a Romney spokesman. “Unfortunately our schedule considerations for the month of September were such that we had to decline several debate invitations and candidate forums from different groups around the country, including Wharton Business School and CNN.”