WASHINGTON -- President Bush urged Republican presidential candidates to actively seek support from black voters, addressing concerns yesterday over the decision by his party's top contenders to skip a nationally televised debate next week at Morgan State University.
During a White House news conference, Bush stopped short of calling on Rudolph W. Giuliani, John McCain, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson to participate in Thursday's forum at the historically black school in Baltimore, which is to focus on minority issues. But he said his party could boast of economic progress for blacks and other groups.
"My advice to whomever will be our nominee is to reach out to the African-American community, as well as other communities," Bush said. "I believe that we've got a very strong record when it comes to empowerment, when it comes to education or homeownership or small-business formation."
The Republican Party has tried and failed repeatedly in recent decades to expand its appeal to black and Hispanic voters. Most recently, the effort foundered after the federal government's poor response to Hurricane Katrina, which pummeled predominantly black communities along the Gulf of Mexico. The immigration views of many Republican leaders also have dampened the outreach effort.
"The GOP has proved time and again that they are afraid to talk to anyone who doesn't agree with them," said Amaya Smith, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee.
Talk-show host Tavis Smiley, lead organizer of the Baltimore debate, which is being broadcast on PBS, has castigated the top Republican presidential candidates for not agreeing to appear. Their campaigns have cited scheduling conflicts and fundraising obligations.
No person should be elected president, Smiley said in a radio commentary this week, if they "avoid people of color."
In a letter yesterday, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, urged Republican Party leaders to "utilize your good offices" to encourage all candidates to attend the debate.
"It's actually insulting," Cummings, a Morgan State regent, said in an interview. "They need to put aside whatever their issues are about appearing before African-American people."
Bush was asked during his news conference whether race relations in the United States are deteriorating, in light of events such as the arrests of high school students after a brawl in Jena, La., and a noose found hanging from a tree near a building housing African-American programs at the University of Maryland, College Park.
The president ducked the broader question and did not call on the top GOP presidential contenders to alter their campaign plans. He seemed to steer his response to whoever becomes the nominee next year.
"We've got a good record to run on," the president said. "And my advice to our candidate would be to run on it."
Making his first public comments about the so-called Jena 6, a group of black high school students accused of beating a white classmate after nooses were found on a tree in the schoolyard, Bush said he was "saddened" by the case.
"I understand the emotions," Bush said. "The Justice Department and the FBI are monitoring the situation down there. And all of us in America want there to be ... fairness when it comes to justice."
Sun reporter Matthew Hay Brown contributed to this article.