Three of the Democrats' nine presidential contenders drew the wrath of the president of the NAACP (search) on Monday for skipping the group's candidate forum, reflecting a growing sentiment among blacks that their loyalty to the Democratic Party (search) is being taken for granted.

The six Democratic presidential hopefuls shared the stage with four empty chairs, each labeled with the name of a White House candidate who didn't make it. They were President Bush and Democrats Joe Lieberman (search), Dick Gephardt (search) and Dennis Kucinich (search).

While Bush's absence wasn't a surprise -- he hasn't attended NAACP conventions since taking office -- the group's leaders were outraged at the Democratic no-shows.

"In essence, you now have become persona non grata," NAACP President Kweisi Mfume (search) said of the Democrats who passed on the event. "Your political capital is the equivalent of confederate dollars."

The party is off to a somewhat rocky start with minorities in this election cycle. Black party leaders were furious when the Democratic National Committee planned to layoff 10 staffers this spring, and all were black. The DNC backed off that plan and has been working with the Congressional Black Caucus to ease tensions.

During Monday's forum, candidate Al Sharpton (search) compared the Democratic Party to the late former Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox, a segregationist who during the 1960s would take up an ax handle to chase blacks from his Atlanta fried chicken restaurant.

"Anytime we can give a party 92 percent of our vote and have to still beg some people to come talk to us, there is still an ax-handle mentality among some in the Democratic Party," Sharpton yelled from the podium, waving a wooden ax handle. "I want to stop people from wanting our vote but not wanting to be seen with us in public, treating us like we are some political mistresses."

Blacks have been a loyal constituency for the Democratic presidential nominee in recent elections. In 2000, Al Gore captured 90 percent of the black vote to George W. Bush's 9 percent, one of the lowest percentages for a Republican in decades, according to exit surveys. Bill Clinton got more than 80 percent in his two Democratic presidential campaigns.

But Stanley Thornton, an NAACP member from Miami, said the Democrats have moved so far to the center that sometimes he can't tell them apart from Republicans. Democratic candidates must distinguish themselves to win black votes, he said.

"Anybody who comes into a convention and says, 'I like black people,' I don't think that's going to work any more," he said.

Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina initially planned to skip the forum, but changed his mind Sunday night after being criticized by NAACP leaders. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts planned to attend the convention, but was trying to negotiate an appearance separate from the other candidates who were attending -- Sharpton, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun.

Kerry also agreed to join the forum after Edwards did, allowing both to escape Mfume's verbal lashing Monday.

Former House Minority Leader Gephardt, D-Mo., said he couldn't make it because of a prior family obligation. Lieberman, a senator from Connecticut, said he had campaign events in New York, and Kucinich, the Ohio representative, said he wanted to be in Washington for votes in the House. Spokesmen for all three said their absence wasn't meant to be a snub, and they hoped to work with the NAACP throughout the campaign.

Robert Jones, a delegate from Texarkana, Texas, said he won't hold it against the candidates who didn't show for the forum because they typically fight for black voters and he expects them to attend future NAACP events. Still, he said, Democrats need to pay better attention to blacks or they will stay home on Election Day.

"I don't see them running toward Republicans," he said. "But there's an apathy."

During the forum, the candidates were asked if ex-felons who have served their sentences should have their voting rights restored. All candidates expressed support for restoration of voting rights, with Graham and Edwards saying they were glad it was the case in their home states.

But Kerry pointed out that he was the only senator on the stage who voted to restore the rights to ex-felons in every state. Graham and Edwards voted against it last year, while Lieberman voted for it. "They've earned their right to be a full citizen back," Kerry said.

Sharpton responded that he may not have been able to vote for the bill, but he supports it and has authority as the only candidate who has ever been in jail. Kerry then interjected to say that he also spent one night in jail; his spokesman said it was in 1971 when he was protesting the Vietnam War.