Republican debate in Baltimore still on, organizers say

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- The organizers of a Republican presidential debate in Baltimore next month said yesterday that the event is on, even though the leading contenders haven't agreed yet to attend.

The nationally televised forum would probably feature one of the first debate appearances by Fred Thompson, if, as expected, the actor and former Tennessee senator declares his candidacy next month and if the event comes off, as planned, Sept. 27.

To date, a number of leading Republican contenders - including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sen. John McCain of Arizona - have not agreed to take part, according to their campaigns.

A spokesman for talk show host Tavis Smiley, the debate organizer, said an announcement about which candidates will appear would be made this month. But, he insisted, the full complement of announced Republican contenders is anticipated onstage at Morgan State University.

All of the candidates "are expected to participate," said the spokesman, David Brokaw.

The event is to be held during the final three days of the fund-raising quarter, typically a period in which the candidates are caught up in a single-minded push to collect as much money as possible. That same week, the Democratic candidates will take time out to meet in a TV debate in New Hampshire, the first primary state.

The Baltimore debate, part of PBS' All American Presidential Forum, is a companion piece to an earlier Democratic debate at Howard University in Washington, devoted largely to issues of concern to urban and minority voters. In contrast to the Morgan State event, all of the candidates committed to the June 28 debate almost three months in advance.

An obvious difference between the two events is the target audience: minority voters, particularly African-Americans, who represent one of the most influential forces in Democratic presidential politics. The reverse is true for the Republicans, whose primary electorate is largely white.

Another factor is the proliferation of candidate debates and forums, which has begun to meet increased resistance from the candidates, who are forced to spend time on debate preparation that might otherwise be devoted to pursuits of their choosing, including appealing for votes in early primary states or raising campaign funds. Democratic candidate Barack Obama announced last weekend that he would limit his participation in multicandidate events for the remainder of 2007, though he will still take part in five more Democratic Party-sanctioned debates around the country, two more in Iowa and one aimed at Hispanic voters.

The national Republican Party, by contrast, neither sanctions debates nor limits the total number, although there have been fewer interest-group forums than on the Democratic side. The next Republican debate, featuring all the announced candidates, will take place Sept. 5 in New Hampshire.

A spokesman for Thompson said the former senator has been preparing for that event and would appear if he has announced his candidacy by then. Thompson also will attend the Baltimore debate if he is an announced candidate at that point, the spokesman said.

As currently envisioned, the debate, at the Murphy Fine Arts Center on the Morgan State campus, will feature questions from three minority journalists - columnist Cynthia Tucker of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Ray Suarez of PBS and Juan Williams of National Public Radio - and Smiley. The event is an outgrowth of Smiley's best-selling collection of essays, The Covenant with Black America, part of what he has described as an effort to "make black America better" and, in the process, "make all of America better."

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