WASHINGTON -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton touted her work on behalf of poor and minority children, and at one point brought members of the audience to their feet, during a nationally televised forum last night aimed largely at black and Hispanic voters.
After prior debates heavily focused on the Iraq war, eight Democratic presidential candidates struck few sparks as they discussed issues of racial discrimination, early education, tax fairness, criminal justice and health care in a friendly and highly collegial manner.
"If HIV/AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country," said Clinton, generating perhaps the most sustained response from the predominantly black audience. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, seeking to become the first black nominee of a major party, was also warmly received, though he did not appear to generate the same degree of enthusiasm as Clinton.
Answering the same question, about disproportionately high rates of HIV infection among blacks, Obama put part of the blame on "a stigma" in what he termed "our communities."
"We don't talk about this. We don't talk about it in the schools. Sometimes we don't talk about it in the churches. It has been an aspect of sometimes our homophobia that we don't address these issues as clearly as it needs to be," Obama said.
The Democratic forum, at Howard University, is to be followed by a companion event, featuring Republican presidential candidates, on the campus of Baltimore's Morgan State University, another historically black institution, on Sept. 27.
Even before the PBS program began, there was controversy over the decision to hire a Republican pollster to monitor a panel of 30 African-American Democrats during the forum. Pollster Frank Luntz, who will appear with the voters on moderator Tavis Smiley's TV show tonight, is to conduct a similar people-meter study during the Baltimore forum.
Last night's encounter came near the close of the campaign's second fundraising period.
Jumping the gun, Clinton announced that she would be reporting donations of about $27 million, roughly the amount she collected during the year's first quarter. Campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson predicted that Obama would "significantly outraise us this quarter."
Obama, who like other candidates in both parties has yet to reveal his latest fundraising total, announced last night that he had 250,000 contributors so far this year, a number that reflects a large and expanding small-donor base.