Candidates Evaluate Risk, Exposure In Choosing Forums

He may not have a health care plan, but he sure knows how to shoot guns. Sort of.

Colorado Congressman and presidential hopeful Tom Tancredo was the only candidate to accept an invitation from the Cheshire County, N.H., GOP to be the Celebrity Guest Shooter last weekend at a local fundraiser.

“Tancredo impressed the attendees with a top ten finish against 48 shooters,” boasts his campaign Web site.

Tancredo’s participation in the event earned him stories in a few New Hampshire newspapers and on MSNBC.

But a few mentions in the news media are worth it for a candidate like Tancredo, who has comparatively little money and lags in the polls behind other GOP candidates, says Colorado State University political science professor John Straayer.

“He has to participate in any forum he can. When you’re down toward the bottom of the stack, anywhere you go it’s free publicity,” Straayer says.

With such little media attention for such events, it’s not surprising the top-tier candidates rarely participate. But GOP hopefuls have been getting mounds of bad press lately for other events they’ve skipped, mainly those sponsored by minority groups. Most Republican candidates turned down invitations to an NAACP debate in July, a planned Univision debate this month and Thursday night’s PBS debate at historically-black Morgan State University in Baltimore.

Avoiding these events reflects negatively on the candidates individually and as a group, Straayer says.

“If you don’t show up, than the others who do show up can use that occasion to observe empty chairs and use that against you,” he says. “Collectively, it’s more media coverage of a party that already has some difficulties in relating well to — and getting political support from — minorities in the country.”

Tancredo was the only Republican to appear at the NAACP forum in Detroit, and it was reported he had pulled out of Thursday night’s debate when it became clear the front-runners weren’t participating. But at the last minute, Tancredo decided to join the debate. John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Fred Thomson all cited scheduling conflicts, but it’s clear the excuse isn’t being bought by many. Even some conservative news outlets are slamming the candidates for avoiding minority audiences.

“The top Republican presidential contenders should demand a refund for the millions they are paying in consultant fees,” said a Washington Times editorial. “Or perhaps launch a round of mass firings for the unbelievably foolish advice they are getting from their advisers who are bent on ignoring the population’s fastest growing demographic groups.”

Straayer also questions the logic of snubbing minority groups.

“I suppose they figure that they’re not going to get that vote anyway, so why bother?” he says. “But I think that’s shortsighted because it’s not just that audience. It’s the whole country that reads the papers.”

But some Republicans candidates have opted to face bad press over having to answer tough questions in front of audiences that lean heavily Democratic. 

That’s not to say the Democratic candidates are immune to such fears — they just haven’t had to make similar choices. Bill Richardson was the only Dem to appear (via video) at a recent National Rifle Association conference. But the other candidates can’t really be faulted — Richardson was the only Democrat invited.

It’s not just controversial issues some candidates are avoiding when declining invitations. Although all declared candidates were invited, only six Democrats and four Republicans will answer health-care related questions from a panel of journalists in separate sessions to be webcast by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The forums are sponsored by the Federation of American Hospitals and Families USA, a non-partisan organization advocating for health care reform. Democrats John Edwards, Dennis Kucinich, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Hillary Clinton and Bill Richardson are participating along with Republicans John McCain, Sam Brownback, Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul. Frontrunners Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are notably absent from the list. The webcasts are scheduled through November, so it’s still possible those candidates will participate. They might be waiting until their messages on health care are more refined.

In general, Straayer says, candidates are making strategic decisions by choosing to participate in forums where their comfort levels are high.

“If you have a choice of platforms, of events, common sense says you go to the ones where you’re personally comfortable with the audience and very comfortable with your topic,” he says.

But once elected, the winning candidate won’t be able to  pick and choose which issues to address.

“If you want to be the president, you ought to be willing to address any obviously important issue,” Straayer says.