Writing in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, Tavis Smiley (host of tonight’s Republican debate) likens the no-show candidates to cautious children who are told never to talk to strangers:

We all remember the words of parents or guardians who warned us never to talk to strangers. While that might be an important warning for small children who face danger and harm from lurking criminals, I’m not sure it’s the best tactic for the people who want to lead the country.
Unfortunately, some members of the GOP leadership are still heeding that advice. In fact, several of the leading Republican presidential contenders (all white males) have strategically avoided talking to some of the nation’s leading groups of color. Not the NAACP, not the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), not Univision, and not any major groups representing Asians or American Indians.

I agree it’s not a good tactic. Parenthetically (at least, it’s irrelevant to tonight’s debate), this explains something that has long bothered me: kids who refuse to speak and who clam up when asked simple questions like “Where’s Main Street?” It’s as if their parents have taught them that every adult is a potential Freddy Krueger.
I think the implicit assumption is being made that the GOP considers minorities to be potential Freddy Kruegers. While I see the point (as I said yesterday I think the candidates should all attend), an argument can also be made that the Republican right wing has been demonized so consistently as a group of evil white men that they, too, might be seen as potential Freddy Kruegers.
Tavis Smiley doesn’t buy the “schedule conflict” excuse, and neither do I:

I’m sure the candidates all have pretty grueling schedules, and there have been quite a few public debates already – but isn’t that part of the process of earning America’s vote? In the most multicultural, most multiracial, most multiethnic America ever, should the president of the United States be elected without addressing issues of concern to communities of color – soon to make up the majority of Americans? I think not.
So what’s to be gained by talking to strangers – especially if you’re running for the highest office in the land? For starters, when you meet someone face to face, you’re no longer a stranger. You have a chance to learn more about your common ground rather than your differences, a chance to chip away at what separates you. No, you can’t achieve all that in one meeting – but no meeting doesn’t cover much ground either.

To which I’d add that even if the audience is hostile, there’s really not much of a downside. Assume that the Republicans face hostile questions and get booed for their answers. Some of the people sitting there will have more respect for them, whether they dare to display it or not. It takes a little spine to face a hostile crowd, though. And even more to do it and not get ruffled. But there’s no indication at all that the crowd or host Tavis Smiley will be hostile. Obviously, he’s not voting Republican, so there’s probably a built-in political bias. But can’t that be said of most mainstream media moderators?
According to the web site linked by Tavis Smiley, here’s what the lineup looks like right now:
If just one of the fearful Republicans who’s currently rated “X” were to show up, I think it might very well amount to a campaign coup of sorts.
I’ll be there as part of the Media Bloggers Association, and the plan is to live-blog the event.
(I’d just love to be able to report any surprise visit…..)