WASHINGTON -- Former Sen. Fred Thompson left supporters hanging for months before joining the presidential contest. Now he's got them wondering when he'll make his debate debut.
The next Republican debate is Sept. 27 in Baltimore, but Thompson's participation appears to be in doubt, in spite of an announcement yesterday from the event's organizers that he would be there.
At least three other Republican contenders, including front-runners Rudolph W. Giuliani and Mitt Romney, have balked at attending. Aimed at minority voters - a nonfactor in Republican primaries - the debate coincides with the final days of the reporting period for campaign fundraising, when candidates would rather be out collecting money.
According to talk-show host Tavis Smiley, the event's organizer and moderator, Thompson agreed last month to take part. Yesterday afternoon, Smiley and KCET, the PBS station in Los Angeles, said Thompson was expected to appear at the Baltimore debate.
But Thompson's campaign said he hasn't committed to any debates yet.
Thompson spokeswoman Karen Hanretty called the Smiley-PBS statement inaccurate and said campaign officials were "very surprised to see that they did that."
On The Tonight Show, Thompson said Wednesday that he didn't think much of the '08 debates, with up to 10 candidates on stage at once.
"I'll do my share, but I don't think it's a very enlightening forum, to tell you the truth," he told Jay Leno.
Giuliani and Romney have declined invitations to the Maryland debate, to be held on the campus of historically black Morgan State University. And Arizona Sen. John McCain has not confirmed his attendance.
The forum, to be aired nationally on PBS, is the second in a series designed to force presidential candidates in both parties to address concerns of minority voters. The first, at Howard University in June, drew the entire Democratic field, which signed up months in advance.
Corralling the Republicans has proved far more difficult.
"This is the hardest thing I have ever done," Smiley said in an interview yesterday. He said he found it "a little strange" that rival candidates "would beat up on Fred Thompson" for not being at this week's televised debate in New Hampshire, "then decide not to show up in Baltimore."
Any Republican who fails to appear will be making "a huge mistake," predicted Smiley, who has a nightly talk show on PBS. "If the person who ends up being the Republican nominee a year from now, if they skipped this debate in Baltimore, this is going to become a watershed moment in the race for the White House."
There will be an empty lectern on stage for each candidate who fails to show up in Baltimore, said Smiley, who has gone on the attack against Republican no-shows.
"So, you're telling me that your wealthy donors are more important than everyday people?" Smiley said in an Aug. 23 radio commentary. "I wonder ... what the race of these wealthy donors is, anyway. ... You're not just going to lose your black voters if you don't show up. More importantly, you're going to lose moderate and progressive white voters who are turned off to your politically and culturally truncated view of America."
Debate planners have been working behind the scenes to produce a program that won't be overly hostile to the Republicans, including an effort to seat an audience that is as neutral as possible, according to a person with knowledge of the preparations.
Still, the candidates who show up will expect tough questioning on issues such as immigration, the federal response to Hurricane Katrina and their party's dismal standing with black and Hispanic voters.
There have been five Republican debates, with at least four on the 2007 calendar after the Baltimore event, all in states with early contests: Michigan, Florida and Iowa next month, and Florida in late November. Candidates in both parties have begun balking at demands for their attendance at debates, joint appearances and forums sponsored by interest groups and news organizations.
Scheduling conflicts and other spats, such as whether Democrats would appear at events carried by Fox News, seen as overly friendly to conservatives by many liberals, have led to cancellations and date changes.
Smiley said that won't happen with his. "If it's just me and Tom Tancredo or me and Mike Huckabee, we are going forward," he said. "We are staying on the 27th. If they don't show up, it's on them."