Presidential contenders appeared Thursday at the Unity '99 convention of minority journalists--including George W. Bush, who hastily rearranged his schedule for an impromptu walk-through.
The Republican governor of Texas ordered his staff to rearrange his schedule after a Times story Thursday reported that even though he was campaigning here he couldn't fit an appearance before the 6,000 journalists into his schedule. His rebuff provoked criticism from some at the conference, who noted that Bush has made racial and ethnic inclusion a key theme of his campaign.
Unlike two of his rivals for the White House--former Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)--Bush spent only minutes at the conference, informally greeting the crowd that quickly gathered around him. Vice President Al Gore is scheduled to speak to the group today.
As convention officials attempted to move Bush to another location for a formal news conference, several reporters shouted questions and admirers pressed for autographs and posed for photos.
"I have a lot of friends here from Texas," Bush said, explaining why he came to the convention. "I wanted to come by and say 'Hi.' "
Karen Hughes, a Bush spokeswoman, said a decision to alter his schedule came as Bush was en route to Seattle and after campaign officials read the morning newspapers. "We read the L.A. Times story this morning and people were saying it was an important signal to send, so he decided to make the effort," Hughes said.
Bush did not stray beyond an exhibition hall that was set up for job interviews. Repeatedly asked why he had not agreed earlier to attend the gathering of African American, Asian American, Latino and Native American journalists, Bush shrugged and said he gets many more invitations than he can accept. "Do you know how many invitations I get?" he asked, adding that he didn't know he had been invited until a day before he arrived in Seattle.
After his 15-minute tour, Bush disappeared as suddenly as he had arrived--through a loading dock entrance.
Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.), who help organize Bush's first swing through the state as a presidential candidate, said the initial decision not to attend the conference wasn't a snub of minority journalists but a decision that Bush's staff made because of scheduling constraints. The story in The Times persuaded staff members to find time for the visit, she said.
Unity President Catalina Camia and other convention officials said they were pleased that Bush showed up but were disappointed that he declined to answer questions in a more formal manner.
Camia, criticizing his "inadequate visit to Unity '99," said the group had asked in May for Bush to speak and answer questions and had regular talks since with his staff about his possible appearance.
"This was clearly a missed opportunity for the Bush campaign and for the convention attendees," Camia said.
Bradley and McCain stayed longer.
Bradley, who is challenging Gore for the Democratic nomination, opened his address with a jab at Bush. "I didn't change my schedule to be here," Bradley said, before launching into a version of his stump speech on the value of racial diversity.
"There is no substitute for presidential leadership when it comes to the subject of race," he said.
McCain said he was in Los Angeles when he read The Times story and ordered his staff to cancel a breakfast appointment so he could fly to Seattle.
At a news conference, McCain discussed campaign finance reform, then talked about the need for the GOP to be more inclusive. The idea that no Republican candidate would appear before the minority journalists was particularly upsetting, he said. "We're not sending the message in a, dare I say it, compassionate manner that we are sensitive," McCain said, borrowing Bush's "compassionate conservatism" mantra. "I'm afraid we will not win these elections if we don't do that."