As the Democrats debated last night in New Hampshire, a debate broke out about the decision of the leading Republican presidential hopefuls to skip a televised forum tonight that focuses on issues important to black and Hispanic voters.
None of the leading Republican candidates plan to attend the forum, which the television host Tavis Smiley will moderate at Morgan State University in Maryland and which will be broadcast live on public television. All the leading Democratic candidates attended a similar debate moderated by Mr. Smiley in June at Howard University in Washington.
Instead of attending the televised forum, which has been in the works for months, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Mitt Romney are scheduled to be in California, Fred D. Thompson in Tennessee and Senator John McCain in New York.
“I’m very disappointed by it,” said Michael Steele, the chairman of Gopac, an organization that tries to groom Republican candidates, who said he had spent months trying to have all the candidates attend the forum. “The hope was that it would be a chance for these guys to get out there and have a direct conversation with African-Americans and minorities across the country and lay out their visions.”
Mr. Steele said that shunning the debate could not only harm the party’s prospects with black voters, but with independent voters, as well.
“It doesn’t help,” said Mr. Steele, who became the first African-American to win statewide office in Maryland when he was elected lieutenant governor. “It’s hard enough as a black Republican to stand up in the community and say, ‘Trust me, these guys really do care,’ and then, when given the opportunity to show that, these folks don’t see the follow-through.”
A Republican debate on Univision, the Spanish-language television network, was canceled this month because Mr. McCain was the only leading candidate to agree to attend. (The top Democratic candidates, by contrast, did debate on the network.)
The decision to skip the forum tonight was criticized in an editorial in The Washington Times, a conservative-leaning newspaper, that said, “It is striking that the Republican front-runners believe that some run-of-the mill fund-raiser is more important than building up their relationships with black and Hispanic voters, groups who flock to the Democratic Party in droves.”
Donald E. Scoggins, the president of Republicans for Black Empowerment, a national group, said he hoped that the furor caused by the decisions to skip the debates would persuade the leading candidates to find another forum to address black voters.
“We feel that they’re losing a great opportunity to bring to the black community views that we feel, if they were aired, would go a long way toward dispelling the myths involving Republicans and the black community,” Mr. Scoggins said.
And he said he worried that if the Republican Party did not adapt it would find itself increasingly out of step with the changing demographics of the nation.
“I feel that the Republicans cannot continue to send subliminal messages to the base when it comes to dealing with race,” Mr. Scoggins said.