The nine Democratic hopefuls seeking their party's nomination for president will meet Tuesday for a third debate, one co-sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute (search) and Fox News Channel.
Airing live on FNC at 8:00 p.m. EDT, the 90-minute debate is taking place at Morgan State University (search) in Baltimore, Md.
Tuesday's meeting will be the first major debate of the campaign season in which all nine candidates will attend. Eight of the nine candidates met last week in New Mexico, but civil rights activist Al Sharpton was unable to catch his flight from New York and missed the forum.
The nine candidates met in May in South Carolina for a taped debate that aired late in the evening.
"This is an opportunity to excite the electorate and remind them the election is just around the corner," Rep. Elijah Cummings, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus who also represents Baltimore, told Fox News.
Tuesday's debate is the first of two that are being co-sponsored by the CBC and Fox News. A second debate that all nine candidates have promised to attend, will take place Oct. 26 in Detroit.
The CBC Institute, which comprises members of the Congressional Black Caucus and private-sector professionals from academia, policy groups, labor and business, focuses on educating African-Americans and others on key issues of national policy. The group analyzes redistricting and African-American voting representation, and provides political campaign training, and leadership conferences and symposia.
African-American voters have traditionally supported Democrats. More than 24 million black Americans are registered to vote, and nearly 13 million -- about 53 percent -- did in the 2000 election, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (search). President Bush won 9 percent of the African-American vote in 2000, an indication of the enormous strength the community could have if it were to rally behind one Democratic candidate.
"No debate is likely to be more important [for the Democrats] than the one in front of the Congressional Black Caucus Institute," said Fox News' chief political correspondent Carl Cameron. "For decades there has been no more loyal group of voters to the Democratic Party than African-Americans, and that's why this debate is so critical."
But some African-Americans of late have become disenchanted with Democrats, whom they say take them for granted. And Sharpton warned on Saturday that Democrats need to pay more attention to that voting bloc.
"We must not be in a relationship with a Democratic Party that takes us for granted. We must no longer be the political mistresses of the Democratic Party,'' Sharpton told an audience attending the first awards banquet for the Central Virginia Business and Construction Association, a group of minority-owned construction companies.
"A mistress is where they take you out to have fun but they can't take you home to mama and daddy. Either we're going to get married in 2004 or we're going to find some folks who ain't ashamed to be seen with us,'' he said.
The candidates, however, are going to debate a wide range of issues, and their positions may leave other lasting impressions on the audience. Among the hottest topics currently is how to secure and reconstruct Iraq, and how best to blame Bush for what many of his opponents say is a descent into chaos there.
According to Fox News, Gallup and Pew polls at the start of the war with Iraq in March, African-Americans were much less supportive of going to war in Iraq than white Americans.
Though many of the candidates have responded that they think there is no backing away from Iraq now, some candidates could gain favor by suggesting what they would do differently from the president.
For instance, in the last debate, former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, the first African-American woman in Congress, said she would turn attention back toward capturing Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden, whom she says is a bigger risk than Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ever was.
The candidates could also strike a chord with the audience on health care and tax cuts, two issues that African-Americans say don't get enough attention.
A Families USA study in March showed African-Americans were nearly twice as likely as whites to lack health insurance during some time in the previous two years. Studies have repeatedly shown that people lacking health insurance delay treatment and exacerbate their illnesses. In addition, more African-Americans were likely to be unemployed during the economic downturn, leaving them without insurance.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt have proposed various forms of universal health care coverage, including helping those in the low- and middle-income ranges as well as those that lose employment benefits. North Carolina Sen. John Edwards has proposed a more modest health care program that guarantees coverage for children.
Many of the candidates have said they would repeal the president's tax cuts, citing that most of the money is going to the wealthiest taxpayers. But Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut have said they would keep the middle-class cuts signed into law by the president, cuts that are more likely to benefit African-Americans.