The moderator and the panel of well-known journalists were there. A large live audience was there, too, along with the public television cameras that carried the forum to television sets across the nation. But where the four leading Republican presidential candidates were to have stood and debated, four empty, silent lecterns sat on the stage.
That was because the four all cited scheduling conflicts and did not participate last night in the long-planned debate, where they were to be quizzed by black and Hispanic journalists about issues important to minority voters. And their conspicuous absence prompted a debate among Republicans about whether their party is attentive enough to black and Hispanic voters.
If the top Republican candidates were physically absent from the forum, held at Morgan State University, a historically black university in Baltimore, they were very much on the minds of those who came.
“Let me take a moment right here and now to say hello to those of you viewers from home: Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Senator John McCain, Gov. Mitt Romney and Senator Fred Thompson,” Tom Joyner, the syndicated radio host, said in his opening remarks, to knowing laughter from the audience.
And several candidates who did show up wasted little time in criticizing the no-shows.
“I’m embarrassed for our party, and I’m embarrassed for those who did not come,” said Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas. “Because there’s long been a divide in this country. And it doesn’t get better when we don’t show up.”
Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas began by saying: “I think this is a disgrace that they’re not here. I think it’s a disgrace for our country, I think it’s bad for our party, and I don’t think it’s good for our future.”
“You know,” he said, “you grow political parties by expanding your base, by reaching out to people and getting more people. What they’re doing is sending a message of narrowing the base.” Representative Duncan Hunter of California said, “When we have family reunions, and some of the family members don’t show up, we do talk about them — but I’m not going to do that.”
Alan Keyes, the conservative former diplomat who recently entered the race, defended the absentees.
“I think it is a little unfair to assume that they didn’t show up tonight because they were sending some message of a negative kind to the black community,” said Mr. Keyes, who is black. He noted that they also skipped a recent debate that was held to address issues important to conservatives.
The debate comes shortly after Univision, a Spanish-language network, canceled a Republican debate only Mr. McCain agreed to participate. All the leading Democratic candidates participated in a Univision debate this month, and all appeared at the first All-American Presidential Forum, which was held in June at Howard University in Washington.
Tavis Smiley, the television host who moderated both PBS forums, said at the outset: “Some of the campaigns who declined our invitations to join us tonight have suggested publicly that this audience would be hostile and unreceptive. Since we are live on PBS right now, I can’t tell you what I really think of these kinds of comments.”
Without the front-runners, some of the candidates who have been overshadowed in past debates got a chance to be heard on a variety of issues, among them the crisis in Darfur, capital punishment and concerns about the racial discrimination in the justice system.
Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado noted that he was the only Republican candidate who showed up this summer at a forum held by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Representative Ron Paul of Texas was cheered for his calls to bring the troops back home and end the war on drugs.
Candidates in both parties have shunned debates that fell outside their comfort zones. The leading Democratic candidates did not attend a debate on Fox News after liberal online groups urged them to boycott Fox over what they said was its conservative bias.
A number of prominent Republicans have complained that the decision by the top candidates to skip the debate could endanger the party’s recent efforts to reach out to black and Hispanic voters, and warned that it could turn off independents and swing voters in the general election.
Even Mr. McCain, who defended his decision to skip the debate at a breakfast speech in New York City, voiced concerns.
“I think we have work to do in the African-American community,” he said, adding that he is concerned that Republicans are also failing to reach out to Hispanic voters. “I think that we have to remind ourselves, as well as our constituents, that we are the party of Abraham Lincoln.”