None of the top four Republican presidential candidates showed up last night for a debate aimed at addressing minorities, ceding the stage to the lower-tier candidates who said they would take steps to try to win black voters to their party.
"I'm embarrassed for our party and I'm embarrassed for those who did not come," said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the top-performing Republican to show up, who touted having won 48 percent of Arkansas' black voters during one of his elections.
He advocated extra funding for blacks to bring down higher levels of hypertension and diabetes, and said drug crime penalties that strike harder at black criminals than whites should be ended.
Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, called for an official apology for slavery and promised to pursue the "symbolism" of a national black history museum.
But those race-directed solutions drew a strong rebuke from Reps. Ron Paul, Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo, who said the solution is instead to extend freedom and opportunity.
"It is destructive to only talk about the politics of race," Mr. Tancredo said. "It really does not do a service to us as Americans."
Last night's forum, at Morgan State University in Baltimore, was moderated by talk show host Tavis Smiley, and the questions came from black and Hispanic pundits. It aired nationally on the Public Broadcasting Service.
The first 10 minutes of the debate were dedicated to bashing the four no-shows and, in some cases, Republicans as a whole.
"Let me take a moment right here and now to say hello to those of you viewing from home: Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Senator John McCain, Governor Mitt Romney and Senator Fred Thompson," talk show host Tom Joyner said.
He then expressed his own skepticism of the Republican Party, saying there is "a perception out there that the Republican Party holds only the interests of the majority population." It was a theme repeated throughout the night.
Mr. Brownback said he had a solution for black voters to prove to Republicans that they matter: "Register Republican and vote for one of the six of us."
Former Ambassador Alan Keyes, who announced his candidacy earlier this month but who is being excluded from some of the debates, made a pitch for his own inclusion: "They may or may not be afraid of all black people, but there seems to be at least one black person they're afraid of."
Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Romney were both in California. Mr. Giuliani raised funds and accepted the endorsement of former Gov. Pete Wilson, while Mr. Romney met voters in Sacramento. Mr. McCain was in New York yesterday while Mr. Thompson was in Tennessee.
The stage included four empty lecterns representing them.
Some clear differences emerged between the candidates who did show. Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Brownback both identified themselves as strong supporters of giving the District of Columbia voting rights in Congress, though Mr. Brownback said it must be through a constitutional amendment.
Mr. Brownback, who until now has been a staunch advocate of granting citizenship to illegal aliens, did a U-turn and said he "will not support new paths to citizenship."
On the death penalty, all but Mr. Paul agreed that it needs to be retained for the most serious crimes. All six candidates said states can require identification to be shown before a voter may cast a ballot, though Mr. Paul said that has to be within limits.
"They might want to think it's a good excuse to have a national ID card to vote, and I am positively opposed to any move toward the national ID card," said the former Libertarian presidential candidate.