Leaders of the NAACP denounced three Democratic presidential candidates who did not attend the group's forum and warned the party's office seekers that their support should not be taken for granted in next year's election.

The six presidential hopefuls who participated in Monday's forum shared the stage with four empty chairs, each labeled with the name of a White House candidate who did not attend. 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 (search) 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 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 leaders were furious when the Democratic National Committee planned to layoff 10 staffers — all black — this spring. 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 compared the Democratic Party to the late Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox (search), a segregationist who during the 1960s would take up an ax handle to chase blacks from his 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.

Democrats are out of power in Washington with no clear leader, grappling with discontent among their core constituencies. Blacks say they are taken for granted, white liberals are unhappy with what the see as the party's move to the center and gays are disappointed that the six leading Democratic presidential candidates are not speaking out for gay marriage rights.

Many of the presidential candidates will address gay issues Tuesday in a forum being held in Washington by the Human Rights Campaign.

Some disaffected Democrats have flocked to the candidacy of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who expresses some of the same frustrations. He drew applause during the NAACP forum by criticizing Democrats for supporting Bush's war with Iraq, his tax cuts and his education plan.

"The reason I'm running for president is because I think our party has become silent for too long about things that matter," Dean said. "We are not going to beat George Bush by trying to be like him."

Joining Dean and Sharpton at the forum were former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and Sens. Bob Graham of Florida, John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina.

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, an 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.

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 such a bill 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 has authority on the issue as the only candidate who has ever been in jail. Kerry then interjected to say that he spent a night in jail; his spokesman said it was in 1971 when he was arrested for protesting the Vietnam War.