GOP Presidential Candidates Forum Observations

I had the pleasure of attending Thursday's Republican presidential candidate's forum at Morgan State University. I also participated in a post forum roundtable that aired on the Tavis Smiley Show on PBS on Friday, September 28. I spent most of the forum in the media filing center (more on that later) before going to the Murphy Center for the Arts to take in the final moments.

Observations:

* This event was hurt by the absences of the four top-tier candidates. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Senator John McCain, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, and former Senator Fred Thompson all cited scheduling conflicts in their decision to skip the forum. That reason flies in the face of the fact that those forum invitations were issued in March. Their absence left a decided lack of electricity from the evening. In some ways it was like watching a concert of preliminary acts with no head liners. The auditorium was about two-thirds full and about 80% of the accredited media did not bother to attend.

* Mike Huckabee has always struck me as a thoughtful candidate and he distinguished himself from the field offering comments that demonstrated he did research and had some understanding of Black America. His comments on criminal justice reform showed real common sense. Typical "tough-on-crime" conservatives address criminal justice in irresponsible sound bites, slogans, and policies: "three strikes", "do away with parole", and the "death penalty." These sound bites, slogans and policies were more about appearing to be tough on crime than actually doing the hard work of rehabilitation. Huckabee scored points by noting that 80% of those incarcerated in America are so because of drug or alcohol related crime. He called for the creation of drug courts and alternatives to incarceration where appropriate. This doesn't usually come from conservatives and shows an ability to think for himself in a way that sets him apart for rank-and-file Republicans.

* Sam Brownback indicating that he would issue an apology for slavery and segregation struck me as curious. He, as president, can issue an executive order or proclamation of some sort, but he would need to go through Congress to give it the full force of the American government. If there aren't 60 votes in the Senate to end the war in Iraq, then there aren't likely to be enough votes to overcome what I believe to be a certain filibuster in the Senate on an even more controversial issue.

* Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution gets the gold star of the night for asking the question on D.C. voting representation in Congress. As a fourth-generation Washingtonian, the nephew of a former D.C. representation to Congress, and someone who has written a book on the subject, I've always been disappointed and frustrated by the lack of national interest in an issue so fundamental to democracy. Our government is spending billions in blood and treasure to ensure a functional representative democracy in Iraq (including that of many Washingtonians), but won't do anything to mend the crack in the liberty bell that is the status of Americans who happen to live in the District of Columbia.

* Alan Keyes is shameless.

Overall, the event was a success, despite the no-shows, because it featured questions that never would have been asked by other journalists on the major broadcast and cable networks. The candidates who skipped the event will be fine during the primary election process. The Republican nominee, likely one of the four, will pay a price in the general election. The nominee will see the 11% that President Bush received in 2004 as a lofty goal rather than an expectation. Given what is going on with the party on immigration and Iraq and their impact on Independents and Latino/a voters, the Republicans are heading for trouble in 2008.