Republican presidential candidates discussed the importance of reaching out to people of color during a minority issues debate Thursday night and criticized the leading four GOP contenders for skipping it.

"I think this is a disgrace that they are not here," said Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback. "I think it's a disgrace to our country. I think it's bad for our party, and I don't think it's good for our future."

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said he was "embarrassed for our party, and I'm embarrassed for those who didn't come."

The four no-shows — former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Sen. Fred Thompson, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — cited scheduling conflicts in saying they could not attend the debate at historically black Morgan State University.

"Fortunately, there are those in the Republican Party who do understand the importance of reaching out to people of color," said talk show host Tavis Smiley, the debate moderator, thanking the six other candidates for participating.

Besides Brownback and Huckabee, the other candidates who participated in the debate were: Reps. Duncan Hunter of California, Ron Paul of Texas and Tom Tancredo of Colorado, and conservative activist Alan L. Keyes.

The forum, which had black and Hispanic journalists questioning the candidates, was broadcast live on PBS.

The candidates answered questions ranging from what they would do to help minorities, their views on illegal immigration, the war in Iraq, minority unemployment rates and their position on capital punishment.

Huckabee said he would want his legacy in helping minorities to be more equal treatment for them in the criminal justice system. Brownback said he would continue to push for the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington. Keyes spoke of bringing more religious values into schools.

Paul received loud applause when he told the audience that minorities are unfairly punished in the criminal justice system. He also called for ending the war on drugs. "It isn't working," Paul said.

Tancredo said two things have mostly hurt blacks economically and more than race: the welfare state and "the importation of millions upon millions of low-income workers that depress the wage rates."

"Those two things are responsible," he said.

Hunter said the key to securing Iraq and bringing home U.S. troops is to get Iraq's army battle-hardened and capable of defending the country from insurgents.

Among the Republicans who have criticized the leading contenders for skipping the forum are former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, and former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, the first black official elected statewide in Maryland.

"I'm puzzled by their decision. I can't speak for them. I think it's a mistake," Gingrich, who is considering joining the race for the GOP nomination, said this week.

Smiley also moderated a debate in June among the Democratic presidential candidates at Howard University in Washington, another historically black school.

Earlier this month, seven of eight Democratic candidates participated in a debate aired by Univision, the Spanish-language TV network. A Univision-sponsored GOP debate was canceled after only McCain agreed to participate.