The Washington Post has the story (via Memeorandum):
"I apologize for the candidates who aren't here. I think it's a disgrace that they aren't here," Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.), a presidential hopeful, told the audience. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry to you and I'm sorry to those who are watching that they are not here."
Asked before the debate whether he accepted his rivals' claims of scheduling conflicts, Brownback said, "If it was a high enough priority, it would get on the schedule."
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, another candidate who made the trip, called the situation "embarrassing" for his rivals. "We've come a long way, but we have a long way to go, and we don't get there if we don't sit down and work through issues," he told the appreciative crowd.
The debate was hosted by PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley and attended by Brownback, Huckabee, Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.), Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) and Alan Keyes, a former ambassador who has sought the presidency twice before.
Several of the candidates took pains to cater to the mostly black audience, blaming inequality in America on continuing racism. Brownback said he wants Congress to pass a formal apology for slavery and segregation. Huckabee promised he would, as president, improve housing opportunities for minorities and address unequal treatment of different races in the criminal justice system. He also pledged to support voting rights for the District of Columbia.
By contrast, Tancredo declared that economic differences have "nothing to do with race," and several candidates reiterated their desire to crack down on illegal immigrants. Paul loudly repeated his call for an end to the war in Iraq. Keyes blamed the plight of the black community on moral decay.
But the forum, which was pitched as a chance to discuss the "covenant with black America," was undercut by the absence of the party's top contenders -- an outcome criticized by black activists, Democratic candidates and some senior Republican leaders.
It's understandable why the top GOP contenders skipped the debate. The Republican Party's primary process will not reward candidates endorsing the failed policy agenda of the post-civil rights black community. Yesterday's Los Angeles Times pinned down the key issues:
Critics say the 2008 candidates' decisions [to skip the debate] reflect the reality that the Republican nomination will be decided by the party's overwhelmingly white, conservative base. Answering questions on issues such as urban blight, AIDS, the government response to Hurricane Katrina and immigration might only hurt the top candidates, all of whom have faced scrutiny over their conservative credentials.
From my perspective, whether answering such questions would hurt the candidates depends on the type of responses offered.
I think Brownback's decision to pander slavishly to the traditional victim's strategy of the black community is a disaster. The responses of Tancredo and Keyes, on the other hand, pushed the discussion on black progress in the right direction.
Blacks do not need more policies of redistribution amid the endless cries of "institutional racism." We've seen enough of that. It's been 43 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and the political system, the educational establishment, and the corporate sector have made historic efforts to promote full inclusion for African-Americans in mainstream life. The key agenda for the GOP should be to promote black independence and uplift through policies focusing on greater individual and family responsibility, excellence in educational achievement, the rebuilding of the black family structure, and opportunity-oriented economic policies, focusing on entrepreneurship and ownership.
Further, I've noted recently that the epidemic of black-on-black crime - and especially the phenomenon of "witness intimidation" in the black community, which has made it harder for law enforcement to bring inner-city murderers to justice - ought to be a top Republican issue. The GOP can regain its legacy as the party of Lincoln if its top candidates seize the debate by making a new black freedom and opportunity agenda a premiere plank in the Republican platform.