BALTIMORE, Sep 28 (Reuters) The lesser-known Republican presidential candidates condemned their top rivals for skipping a debate on minority issues and said their absence hurt the party's image and amplified racial divisions.
Four empty podiums highlighted the decisions of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov Mitt Romney, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Tennessee Sen Fred Thompson to skip the debate at historically black Morgan State University in Maryland.
''Frankly, I'm embarrassed. I'm embarrassed for our party and I'm embarrassed for those who did not come, because there's long been a divide in this country and it doesn't get better when we don't show up,'' former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said in the nationally televised debate.
The missing candidates -- the top four Republicans in the 2008 presidential race -- cited scheduling conflicts in skipping the forum designed to address issues of interest to blacks, traditionally the most loyal Democratic voters.
Their absence sparked criticism from some Republicans, particularly after the cancellation of a Spanish-language debate aimed at Hispanics earlier this month when all of the 2008 Republicans except McCain backed out.
''I apologize for the candidates that aren't here,'' said Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback. ''I think it's a disgrace for our country, I think it's bad for our party and I don't think it's good for our future.'' Blacks traditionally support the Democratic Party, with nearly 90 percent backing the party's nominee in recent presidential elections. But Republicans launched a concerted effort to win their vote after President George W Bush's re-election in 2004, and Brownback said the missing candidates sent the wrong message.
'EXPAND YOUR BASE' ''You grow political parties by expanding your base, by reaching out to people and getting more people. What they're doing is sending the message of narrowing the base, and that's not the right way to go,'' Brownback said.
Republican Alan Keyes, a black commentator and frequent presidential and Senate candidate who recently joined the presidential race, noted the top candidates had also skipped a ''values voters'' debate in Florida aimed at religious conservatives that he participated in.
But they were all going to appear at a Michigan debate next month to which he has not been invited, Keyes said.
''That suggests that 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,'' Keyes said.
''They don't believe that it's possible to address a significant portion of the black community on the basis of solid Republican principles, and I do,'' he said.
California Rep. Duncan Hunter likened the debate to a family gathering. ''You know, when we have family reunions and some of the family members don't show up, we do talk about them,'' Hunter said.
Giuliani, Romney, Thompson and McCain were on the campaign trail in California, New York and Tennessee yesterday, raising money as the end of the third-quarter fund-raising period approaches.
Asked to name a Republican president since Abraham Lincoln who had created a positive legacy for black Americans, Huckabee mentioned President Dwight Eisenhower's efforts to ensure the safety of the nine black students who desegregated schools in his home state of Arkansas in 1957.
Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo said Ronald Reagan had done something positive for all Americans by increasing liberty.
''I think it is destructive to only talk about the politics of race, and suggest that all of the actions taken, or all of the specific programs that we identify and talk about tonight should be focused on race,'' he said.
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