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Is GOP Determined to Avoid Minority Voters?

By Carl Leubsdorf

Nothing has more significance for America's long-term political evolution than the demographic changes that are diversifying a mostly white nation.

But you'd never know it from the Republican presidential race.

Not only is the GOP field all white and male – in a year that Democratic contenders include an African-American senator, a Hispanic governor and a woman – but its candidates seem determined to avoid many of the nation's more diverse groups.

So far, most Republicans have bypassed three chances to woo the fastest-growing, most tempting minority, Hispanics. They also turned down a chance to appear before a leading group of gays and lesbians and have avoided some unions, where Republicans poll a significant minority.

And next week, the top GOP hopefuls will pass up a debate designed to spotlight issues of special interest to African-Americans.

Their actions defy warnings that their party needs to expand its share of minority votes or doom itself to minority status. After 2000, President Bush's strategists said he'd lose in 2004 unless he increased his share of the Hispanic vote to 40 percent.

He did – and he won.

Last year, after most leading Republicans denounced his immigration plan providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already here, the party's share of the Hispanic vote dropped sharply.

Just last week, The Wall Street Journal, a pillar of conservatism, contrasted how the parties approached issues of concern to Hispanics in recent debates and warned of more trouble ahead.

"While GOP candidates debated the urgency of erecting a fence from California to Texas along the Mexican border, Democrats debated in Spanish on Univision," it said.

"Tone matters in politics," it added, noting Latino support for the California GOP skidded when Gov. Pete Wilson sought to deny education and health care benefits to the children of illegal aliens.

On Wednesday, The Washington Post quoted some top Republicans criticizing the candidates. "If we're going to be competitive with people of color," said former Housing Secretary Jack Kemp, "we've got to ask them for their vote."

In defense, Republican candidates note that they have had five debates – with many more to come – and need time for fundraising. But so have the Democrats, who have made a far greater effort to appeal to special interest groups.

Two events this month spotlight the GOP problem.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Arizona Sen. John McCain all declined Tavis Smiley's "All American Presidential Forums on PBS" next Thursday, designed to enable the candidates to address "issues of concern for people of color."

They cited "scheduling conflicts" and the demands of "the accelerated schedule" of primaries.

All eight Democrats joined in a similar forum last June.

Last week, Univision, the leading Spanish-language television network, canceled a GOP debate aimed at Hispanic voters when only Mr. McCain accepted.

A Sept. 9 Democratic debate on Univision drew the full field and more than 2 million viewers.

The canceled GOP debate, which sponsors say they hope to reschedule, was the third time in three months that most Republicans passed up a chance to discuss issues of concern to Hispanics.

In June, only Rep. Duncan Hunter of California accepted an invitation from the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials – along with seven Democrats. No GOP candidates spoke to the annual convention of La Raza.

The pattern goes beyond Hispanic and black groups.

Though about one-third of the nation's teachers are considered to be Republicans, only former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee addressed the National Education Association convention. He was the only one to meet with Urban League officers and to agree to be in the Service Employees International Union's "Walk a Day in My Shoes" program.

To be fair, the leading Republicans also passed up a debate on values issues Monday night.

And on Thursday, Sen. Barack Obama will skip the AARP's forum on health care issues in Iowa.

Democrats forced the cancellation of a planned Congressional Black Caucus debate on the Fox News Channel because they contend that cable network favors the GOP.

A similar event for the Republicans on Nov. 4 in Dallas remains very much in doubt.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington Bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News. His e-mail address is cleubsdorf@dallasnews.com.

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