Sharpton Criticizes Republican Presidential Contenders who Skip Forums with Black Voters

ST. LOUIS (AP) - Civil rights leader Al Sharpton said Thursday black voters should punish Republicans who fail to show for presidential candidates' forums hosted by the National Urban League and the NAACP.

"We can only assume you weren't courting us," Sharpton said. "Republicans have to lay out their policies and court the African-American vote. We need to have our interests debated in the market place."

Sharpton noted there won't be another NAACP or Urban League conference before the presidential primaries.

"When I was in high school, I may not have gone to the prom with the girl I wanted, but with the girl I could get," he said, suggesting Republicans leave black voters little choice but to vote for a Democrat.

Sharpton was among a panel of black leaders, political strategists from both major parties and journalists who discussed the black vote in the 2008 presidential election at the Urban League's national conference here.

Five presidential candidates - four Democrats and one Republican - are scheduled to address the conference Friday. Among them are top-tier Democrats Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, and John Edwards. The lone Republican is Rep. Duncan Hunter of California.

Earlier this month, all eight Democratic candidates participated in a forum at the NAACP meeting in Detroit. The only Republican was Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, a long-shot candidate.

Shannon Reeves, director of state and local development for the Republican National Committee, said his role in the RNC was to get them to understand the black community.

"There are some in our party who don't want to associate with our community," he said to groans from the crowd. He added that "black folks had to kick the door open. The Democratic Party didn't open it wide and say come on in."

Urban League president Marc Morial said black voters deserve more than "drive-by politics and last-minute appeals to churches." But, he admitted, "sometimes we aren't good about getting out to vote." He said no candidate has talked about black economic development, which is the civil rights organization's major thrust.