Opinion: Debate proceeds minus four candidates

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The four top Republican presidential candidates are skipping a nationally televised debate Thursday night.

The debate, being held at the historically black Morgan State University in Baltimore and broadcast nationally on PBS, is going ahead as scheduled. And the moderator, African American talk show host Tavis Smiley, is getting his revenge; he’ll post podiums on the stage for each of the absent candidates.

‘If the candidates come even at the last minute, the stage is set literally and figuratively for them to join the conversation,’ Smiley told The Times’ Peter Wallsten today. ‘If, however, they choose not to attend, then America will see an empty podium representing the missing candidates.’

The four top contenders -- Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, John McCain and Fred Thompson -- have all cited scheduling conflicts in declining the All-American Presidential Forum. All the Democratic candidates turned up for a similar forum recently at Howard University. Republicans Sam Brownback, Mike Huckabee, Duncan Hunter, Ron Paul and Tom Tancredo will appear.

Skipping debates or forums is not unprecedented. Barack Obama, for example, has said that given the overwhelming number of proposed debates and panels, he will pass on a number of such appearances this fall in order to maintain control of his schedule and campaign message. Obama recently skipped a major AARP forum on senior issues that drew all the other major Democratic candidates to speak before 2,400 seniors and a national TV audience in Davenport, Iowa.


But the GOP absences -- coupled with the postponement of a forum on the Spanish-language network Univision -- have reignited a debate within the Republican party over how to appeal to minorities.

‘The bottom line for me,’ Smiley says, ‘is that no one black, white or brown, male, female, Republican or Democrat, should be elected president in 2008 if he or she thinks that along the way they can ignore voters of color.’ Wallsten’s complete story is available here and in Thursday’s print editions.

--Andrew Malcolm