The lesser-known Republican presidential candidates had the stage to themselves last night at Morgan State University, taking advantage of high-profile absences to pitch themselves to a national audience.
The no-shows meant a larger share of the spotlight for contenders all polling in single digits. But it came with challenges: The event's hosts and some questioners voiced skepticism that the Republican Party offered any opportunities for people of color.
FOR THE RECORD - The home state of Republican presidential candidate Sam Brownback was listed incorrectly in a Page 1A article yesterday about the GOP debate at Morgan State University. Senator Brownback is from Kansas.
The Sun regrets the error.
"I admit I'm a little bit out of my comfort zone," said radio host Tom Joyner, who kicked off the event.
The debate at the historically black university in Baltimore focused on unemployment, criminal justice, health care and other issues of importance to minorities - issues on which they traditionally side with Democrats.
Even if the Republicans won converts, it was unlikely they would benefit anytime soon, given the relatively few blacks and Hispanics expected to vote in the GOP primaries.
The debate was perhaps most noteworthy for who wasn't there.
Moderator Tavis Smiley said the empty lecterns on the stage of the Murphy Fine Arts Center were reminders that Rudolph W. Giuliani, John McCain, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson had declined to appear.
Those men - leaders in the polls so far - decided weeks ago that they would not attend, citing scheduling conflicts and fundraising obligations as an end-of-the-month campaign finance filing deadline approached. Their absence has been called a snub by many black leaders.
Some of those campaigns "have suggested publicly that this audience would be hostile and unreceptive," Smiley said. "Since we're live on PBS right now, I can't tell you what I really think of these kinds of comments."
The absence of leading candidates contributed to the auditorium being about two-thirds full. The crowd, which appeared to be evenly split between whites and blacks, was courteous, applauding each of the candidates.
Former Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, one of the GOP's prominent black politicians, said during an introduction that blacks and Republicans have for too long "stood at arm's length from each other" and the divide needs to end.
Those candidates who attended ---- Sen. Sam Brownback of Texas, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Reps. Duncan Hunter of California, Ron Paul of Texas and Tom Tancredo of Colorado, and conservative activist Alan L. Keyes - reached out to black and Hispanic voters when asked why they decided to participate. Huckabee said he was "embarrassed" by the absences, and Brownback "apologized" for the message sent by the no-shows.
The emotion was shared by many in the audience. "If you can't show your face to someone you want to represent, how can you represent us?" asked Aimena Lipscomb, 21, a senior English major.
From the outset, it was clear that the candidates were tailoring their campaign messages in response to questions from a panel of black and Hispanic journalists.
Brownback said that if elected, his administration would issue an "official apology" for slavery and segregation. Paul, a libertarian, said strict adherence to the Constitution would improve conditions for blacks.
Asked why unemployment is higher among black high school graduates than white high school dropouts, Huckabee said: "There is still racism in this country."
"We clearly still don't have a colorblind society," Brownback agreed.
But Tancredo said he couldn't "agree with these race-baiting comments." He blamed welfare and illegal immigration for the economic woes of minorities.
Tancredo, whose stance against illegal immigration makes him close to a single-issue candidate, said a porous border "lowers wage rates" for working-class blacks.
Returning to Maryland, where he was a nominee in 1988 and 1992 for the U.S. Senate, Keyes repeatedly invoked religious themes during lengthy responses that were cut off by Smiley.
"I don't believe there is this deep divide between blacks and whites in America," said Keyes, the lone African-American candidate.
Each of the candidates expressed discomfort with the death penalty, expressing concerns not often articulated in Republicans-only gatherings.
Paul said DNA evidence has shown that "too many mistakes" have been made. Brownback said the death penalty should be limited "to cases where we cannot protect the society from the individual, such as when Osama bin Laden is caught."
The debate unfolded hours after Mychal Bell, a black teenager charged in the beating of a white student in Jena, La., was released on bail from jail, where he had been awaiting trial.
The case - in which Bell originally was charged as an adult and could have been sentenced to 15 years in prison - came to symbolize inequitable justice for blacks. Against that backdrop, the candidates were asked what policies they would pursue to ensure equal justice for all.
Brownback spoke of mentoring programs to help keep ex-convicts from returning to crime. Tancredo criticized mandatory sentences for drug offenses and said such laws should be left to the states.