Black Forum Forges Forward as Republicans Continue to Bail Out

Rep. Tom Tancredo is the latest presidential candidate to pull out of Thursday's Republican debate in Baltimore, which is quickly becoming a shadow of the June Democratic version that also focused on black issues.

Will the event go on if no one shows up?

If Tavis Smiley, moderator of the "All-American Presidential Forum" scheduled Thursday at historically black Morgan State University, has a say, it will.

"Tavis has said that if it is only him and Huckabee, they will have a debate," said Kimberly Logan, special projects manager of The Smiley Group, referring to former Arkansas Gov. Michael Huckabee.

The debate topics, to be presented during prime time on PBS and online by black journalists, are based on the book "Covenant with Black America," edited by Smiley, which outlines top domestic issues faced by blacks.

On June 28, all the Democratic front-running presidential contenders attended a similar debate at Howard University in Washington, also a historically black university.

The candidates confirmed to appear are: Huckabee, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, California Rep. Duncan Hunter, former diplomat Alan Keyes and Texas Rep. Ron Paul.

Although Tancredo of Colorado was also on the confirmation list sent by Carrie Johnson, a senior publicity director at PBS Media Relations, his campaign said backed out last week.

"With most of the top guys not attending, it is not in our best interest," said Alan Moore, Tancredo's press secretary. "He will be focusing on the upcoming primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire."

Tancredo joins four Republican front-runners to opt out of the PBS debate: former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Arizona Sen. John McCain, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and actor and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson.

U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., sent a letter to Republican National Committee leaders on Sept. 19 saying that he was "dismayed and personally offended" by the lack of participation and asked them "to persuade the entire Republican presidential field to participate."

"We would love to host all of them," said John Flynn, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party. "It would be a unique opportunity."

"There is no political mileage for them to come to this debate," said Ron Walters, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. Walters, who is African-American, said Republicans will not get the black vote, but missing the forum nevertheless projects the image that the party has given up on the community altogether.

"This will continue to make the Republican Party a party of whites and the Democratic Party a party of blacks," he added.

But the candidates who are coming are looking forward to the debate.

"He (Huckabee) is committed to it and to a group of people with whom he has had a strong relationship," said Alice Stewart, Huckabee's press secretary. He is ready "to debate issues important to the African-American community."

"When he (Paul) makes a commitment, he keeps it," said Jesse Benton, Paul's communication director. Paul was the first candidate to commit to the debate in June, he added. "He respects Tavis Smiley and PBS, and believes that diversity issues are important."

The GOP candidates earlier snubbed a debate on Latino issues scheduled for Sept. 16 in Miami by Univision, a Spanish-language network. Only McCain accepted its invitation and the forum was shut down.

"It's an insult," said Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Md. "They talk about the African-American vote, but actions speak louder than words."

The country is becoming more and more pluralistic, he added. And to ignore large segments of the population is "a recipe for disaster."

Capital News Service contributed to this report.