Missed opportunity for outreach

The Baltimore Sun

It is not a good look for my party when one of its top presidential contenders blows off invitations from Hispanic and African-American groups while eagerly appearing before the National Rifle Association.

As Rudolph W. Giuliani flagellates himself before the NRA for his past support of gun control, many Hispanics and African-Americans (and many Republicans of all ethnicities) wonder: Why does he think he can now make inroads with the defenders of the Second Amendment and not with their growing and vibrant communities?

Not just Mr. Giuliani but the other three leading contenders for the GOP nomination - Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson and John McCain - turned down an invitation from African-American talk-show host Tavis Smiley to appear at a forum tonight at Morgan State University in Baltimore. Likewise, all but the struggling Mr. McCain blew off a debate invitation from the Hispanic network Univision.

I have spoken to some leading Republicans who feel the campaigns declined the invitations because they think that Tavis Smiley and Univision anchor Jorge Ramos are in the bag for the Democrats. I happen to agree with that assessment, but my answer to them is still: "So what?"

I come at this issue from a much different perspective than most Republicans. I grew up on welfare, was homeless a number of times, and as a child often lived in predominantly black or Hispanic neighborhoods. My wife is Hispanic.

What this life experience taught me is that blacks and Hispanics tend to be some of the most conservative people I have ever met. They are religious, they work incredibly hard, they are not fond of taxes, and they want strict law and order because they are often the victims of crime.

Although the vast majority of African-Americans and a growing number of Hispanic-Americans identify themselves as Democrats, they are far from liberal. If I were a Republican candidate, I'd be begging for the chance to get before these two groups so I could say, "I believe that for the last 40 years, the Democrats have taken your vote for granted. I believe they now feel your vote is a perpetual entitlement rather than an honor to be earned. I believe that if you give me a few minutes, I can articulate why my positions - regardless of my label of 'Republican' - make more sense in the real world for you and your family. I believe that if my party wants to advance and prosper on the national stage, we can only do it with your understanding, counsel and support."

As reported elsewhere, when asked for the rationale for not going to these forums, one campaign adviser replied, "What's to win? ... Why would [the candidates] go into a crowd where they were probably going to get booed?" Such a thought process is insulting to African-American and Hispanic voters and a real detriment to the candidate.

Why go? To get one vote, 10 votes, 1,000 votes. And then start the process all over again. Contrary to what this adviser may think, the African-American and Hispanic vote is not monolithic. These Americans are more tuned in to real life than most of the top 1 percent of financial earners in this country. The obstacles most face are overwhelming and the solutions few and far between.

If the GOP candidates truly believe in what they are selling, they need to bring that message to indifferent or even hostile audiences. Will some in the crowd boo? Sure. Will some tune them out? Sure. But some will listen. And then, maybe a few of them will tell their family and friends that what they heard that day seemed to make sense.

In 2004, President Bush got about 11 percent of the African-American vote and about 44 percent of the Hispanic vote. In 2000, Mr. Bush got about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. I believe that as the illegal-immigration issues play out, the Republican nominee for president in 2008 will get less than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, with the black vote staying stagnant at best.

Unless subtracting voters is somehow the new secret weapon of the GOP, I suspect we will continue to pay a severe price in the voting booth until we give these two communities the respect they deserve.

Last time I checked, this election was about representing all of the American people and not becoming president of the NRA.

Douglas MacKinnon, a former White House and Pentagon official, is the author of the new novel "America's Last Days." His e-mail is dmackinnon@sandw.com.

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