Tuesday Debate a Forum for Black Issues, National Concerns

The Democratic presidential candidates will address issues critical to the African-American community, as well as topics that have broad appeal to the nation, during Tuesday night's debate hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute (search) and Fox News Channel.

"Most [of the questions] will speak to the general political atmosphere. Right off the top they will be focusing on Iraq and the U.S. economy," said National Public Radio (search) national correspondent Juan Williams, a Fox News contributor and one of three panelists posing questions to the nine hopefuls seeking next year's Democratic nomination for president.

Tuesday's debate will air live on Fox News Channel at 8 p.m. ET. Brit Hume, host of "Special Report With Brit Hume," the channel's premier political news show, is moderating the event, the first of two being co-sponsored by CBCI and Fox News. The second debate will be held on Oct. 26 in Detroit.

The debate will take place at Morgan State University (search) in Baltimore, Md., a historically black college where Williams, Ed Gordon, managing editor of Black Entertainment Television, and Farai Chideya, author and former ABC correspondent, are planning to ask questions of ongoing concern to black America.

"The CBC has asked us to focus on two areas of great interest to them -- one of them is civil rights and the other is health care," Williams said, adding that two civil rights issues of concern are racial profiling and employment discrimination.

Candidates are expected to offer their views on whether the federal government is doing enough to address these issues, or if it has relaxed protections meant to prevent civil rights infractions.

“Many of the questions will center around our priorities, which are civil rights, health care, education and the economy ... the issues that affect our daily lives,” said Doug Thornell, communications director for the CBC.

Thornell added that that while "African-Americans are disproportionately affected by the downturn of the economy," many of the issues that will be addressed are "major concerns in everyone’s community."

"The fact that it has been sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Leadership Institute [means] we will get an opportunity to discuss many of the issues that are not ordinarily discussed in the other debates," said Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., a member of the CBC.

But, Waters added, the debate will offer no shortage of discussion and, she expects, bashing of President Bush, whom Waters said has led the United States astray.

"They have got to talk about Bush. He is the 100-pound gorilla sitting in the middle of this debate," she told Fox News. "He is the president of this country, and he has led it down the wrong path."

Tuesday's debate will be the first of the campaign season to feature all nine candidates live. It follows a debate with eight of the candidates hosted in New Mexico last week by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Debra DeShong, communications director for the Democratic National Committee, said that the debates are "absolutely" intended to focus on areas of importance to minority communities.

“We want the African-American and Hispanic communities to know that we are reaching out to them and . . . we are not taking any votes for granted,” DeShong told Foxnews.com.

The CHC hosted its debate in New Mexico in part to highlight issues affecting the expanding Spanish-speaking community, which is expected to play a significant role in the 2004 election.

New Mexico and Arizona, both with large Hispanic populations, hold their primaries early in the season, Feb. 3, the same day as South Carolina and others.

"The Hispanic community deserves to have the presidential candidates speak to their issues,” which include education, unemployment and immigration, said Vanessa Gonzalez, spokeswoman for CHC. Gonzalez noted that the debate was scheduled to coincide with the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15.

Blacks have traditionally been strong supporters of the Democratic Party. In 2000, Bush won just 9 percent of the African American vote.

The African-American community's impact on the general election is significant -- blacks make up 12 percent of the voting public and 84 percent of registered African-Americans voted in November 2000. But it's role in selecting the Democratic nominee cannot be overplayed.

For instance, the black population in South Carolina, one of the early primary states, is 30 percent. With black voters being overwhelmingly Democratic, a large turnout could determine the fates of several candidates, including Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Bob Graham of Florida, both of whom must demonstrate strength in the South.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who officially announced his campaign in the state last week, hopes to use South Carolina as a firewall against Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who are looking strong in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Appealing to black voters there could make all the difference.

In July, seven of the nine candidates attended the National Urban League's annual conference. All the Democratic candidates attended the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's annual convention in Florida that same month.

Three of the candidates -- Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman and Gephardt -- had intended to skip the event, but ended up coming later and seeking forgiveness in front of the assembly after NAACP's leaders strongly chastised them for the absence. (search)

On Saturday, presidential candidate Al Sharpton warned of the dangers of the Democratic Party taking black votes for granted.

"We must no longer be the political mistresses of the Democratic Party. 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," Sharpton told an awards banquet for minority-owned construction firms.

Sharpton campaign director Frank Watkins said his candidate is focused on issues important not only to blacks, but to all Americans.

“Rev. Sharpton’s platform is about adding a voting rights amendment to the Constitution, which is for all Americans. It’s about adding an education amendment to the Constitution, which is for all Americans. It is about adding a health care amendment to the Constitution, which is for all Americans," Watkins said.

Graham's campaign press secretary Jamal Simmons told Foxnews.com that Graham considers Tuesday's debate an opportunity to get the message out to the black community that Graham is the best candidate to represent it.

"I challenge anyone to find another presidential candidate who has done more for the black community than Bob Graham," Simmons said, citing Graham's record in the Senate and as governor of Florida. “Our policy proposals are focused on creating opportunities for all Americans and this rising tide will lift all boats."

Thornell said the candidates "so far have done a fairly good job of addressing issues that are specifically important to African-Americans -- civil rights, education, the economy.”

But not everyone agrees. Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., a CBC member, told Fox News: “Both parties probably have not been exactly forthcoming and as giving to minority voters as we would all like them to be." But, Watt added, Democrats have been better than Republicans.

Asked whether black voters were hearing what they wanted to hear from the candidates, National Urban League spokeswoman Michelle Moore told Foxnews.com: "We’ll reserve comment at this point.”