Democratic Candidates Make Amends at NAACP Forum

Three Democrats apologized to the NAACP (search) convention Thursday for bypassing a presidential forum in a political act of contrition.

Joe Lieberman, Dick Gephardt and Dennis Kucinich rearranged their campaign schedules to appear before the NAACP gathering and say they were sorry. The three White House hopefuls had drawn the wrath of the nation's oldest civil rights group when then skipped Monday's forum, earning the description "persona non grata" from the NAACP leader.

At the start of the gathering Thursday, convention officials suspended the rules to allow the candidates five minutes "for the purpose of public apology and explanation."

Kucinich, who missed the session for votes in the House, explained that he felt an obligation to vote on Medicare (search) legislation. "Now I'm here to let you know that while I have a 100 percent voting record, I'm also 100 percent for the NAACP," the Ohio congressman said.

Kucinich talked about his opposition to the war in Iraq and the nation's economic woes. Then the moderator goaded him into offering an official apology, saying: "We have heard the explanation, does the congressman need to say something else?"

Replied Kucinich: "I'm very sorry I wasn't able to be here, amazing grace, how sweet it is, once was lost, now I'm found."

Gephardt then was introduced to the audience and quickly offered his regrets.

"I'm sorry I was not here when you had the joint appearance the other night," the Missouri congressman and former House Minority leader said. "I had a long standing conflict that I could not get out of, and I apologize to all of you for not being here and I thank you for letting me be here."

Lieberman told the audience that anyone who aspires to a leadership position, such as president, "must believe that the causes that he or she fights for, the stands he or she takes, the decisions he or she makes are right."

"That's leadership. But leadership also means being able to admit when you are wrong. And by not coming Monday, I was wrong. I regret it and I apologize," said the Connecticut senator and 2000 vice presidential nominee.

On Monday, six of the Democratic candidates attended the forum, sharing the stage with four empty chairs, each labeled with the name of a contender who did not attend -- Lieberman, Gephardt, Kucinich and President Bush.

Angered by the no-shows, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume (search) told the convention, "If you expect us to believe that you could not find 90 minutes to come by and address the issues affecting our nation, then you have no legitimacy over the next nine months in our community."

On Thursday, Mfume said the organization appreciated the spirit in which the Democratic hopefuls apologized and "accordingly we have accepted them," but he said that did not ensure their backing.

"Those candidates really have to go back out across this nation to seek that support." Mfume said. "We're glad that they had a change of heart and recognized in many respects why it is so very important not to ignore such a large voting bloc in this nation."

Black voters are an important constituency in Democratic primary politics and supported Al Gore in the 2000 general election by a margin of about 9 to 1. But Mfume warned that their support should not be taken for granted.

Jesse Jackson (search), who addressed the convention Thursday, said the apologies were "overplayed at the expense of our real problem today" and criticized Bush.

"Right now this is like warm-up season for these candidates, and I think Mr. Mfume made his point very well they should recognize the convention and they did -- so that's enough of that," Jackson told reporters. "There's no attempt to rub their noses in the sand."

But many delegates questioned whether the public atonements would appease rank-and-file NAACP members.

"I don't think they've mended the fence," said Vernon Ricks of the Montgomery County, Md., chapter in suburban Washington. He later added: "It did not sit well with the conventioneers."

Bob Lydia, president of the Dallas NAACP branch, said the candidates would need to try to repair the damage once delegates return home and tell friends and neighbors about their assessment of the Democratic field.

Lonnie Strickland, a retired General Motors worker from Detroit, said he was willing to accept the apologies.

"We're not God. We're humans," Strickland said. "And humans make mistakes."