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GOP hopefuls skip chance to woo liberal groups

Broad pattern of rejection seen among candidates

PHILADELPHIA -- It was a bold political move: Republican Mike Huckabee , a conservative presidential candidate and the former governor of a largely non union state, standing in front of nearly 10,000 agitated members of the country's biggest teacher's union and talking about his vision for education.

It paid off. Huckabee earned several enthusiastic standing ovations.

The Arkansas Republican, the only GOP candidate for president who accepted the National Education Association's invitation to speak at its first presidential forum, captivated the teachers with his moving account of his own education in Hope, Ark., where Huckabee was the first male in his family to graduate from high school.

The other GOP candidates, however, chose not to pitch to the 3.2 million-member NEA -- a foolish snub, union leaders said, given that the group's membership is about one-third Republican.

"I think Republicans think the only thing the NEA is interested in is the Democratic agenda. That's not true," Reg Weaver , president of the NEA, said in an interview. As a result, he said, the Republican candidates are missing an opportunity to woo GOP teachers and administrators from all over the country.

The NEA isn't alone. Republican nominees have overwhelmingly skipped national conferences and conventions of groups some believe, often wrongly, as being singularly liberal in mission and membership. The candidates' campaign cited "scheduling conflicts" as a reason for passing on the events, but organizers of the conferences see a pattern of rejection.

Today's convention of the NAACP in Detroit will include all of the eight announced Democratic candidates for president, but only one Republican -- Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo -- although all candidates were invited to speak.

GOPers also declined invitations to speak before the Building and Construction Trades union in March, citing scheduling conflicts, while almost all Democratic contenders attended.

The National Association of Latino Elected Officials invited all presidential candidates, but only one Republican, Representative Duncan Hunter of California, made it to the event. A spokesman for John McCain said the Arizona senator -- an author of the immigration bill that drew heavy criticism from conservative Republicans -- could not schedule time to speak at the NALEO event, but said that McCain made another speech to Latinos in Miami.

While GOP candidates have snubbed what they saw as liberal-leaning groups during past primary campaigns, this year's race for the Republican nomination appears even more aimed at conservatives -- largely because the leading candidates are fighting mightily to win over the party's conservative base.

Tony Fabrizio , a GOP pollster, said the party's strategy for the past six years -- crafted by Karl Rove , President Bush's adviser who helped Republicans win the White House twice -- has been to energize the base while ignoring the left.

The current crop of Republican candidates appears to be largely following that same approach, he said.

"They don't all have scheduling conflicts," Fabrizio said, questioning the excuse many candidates give for not accepting invitations to speak at some events.

While it might make sense for certain candidates to avoid very issue-specific audiences -- an antiabortion candidate might just as well skip a pro-abortion rights convention, for example -- most candidates could earn votes and respect by showing up at other presidential candidate forums.

"You just can't dismiss all of these out of hand, especially if there is a message you're trying to communicate that plays off what the group" is focused on, Fabrizio said.

Peter Fenn, a Democratic consultant, said he has taken fellow Democrats to task for paying too much attention to labor unions and other groups seen as more sympathetic to them.

"You can't just preach to the converted, especially when you've got a 50-50 nation" in terms of political leanings, Fenn said. "You've got to reach out."

While the African-American vote is overwhelmingly Democratic, Bush increased his support among black voters from 8 percent in 2000 to 16 percent in 2004 in Ohio -- a small increase that helped make the difference in an excruciatingly close election there.

The GOP candidates who skipped the Latino conference in Orlando late last month are particularly short-sighted in their political calculations, Fenn said, since the Hispanic vote is still very much up for grabs.

Hunter, a hard-liner on immigration who wants to build a fence along the US-Mexican border, nonetheless was warmly received by the Latino attendants, may of whom said they appreciated the simple fact that Hunter showed up.

"People gave him a lot of credit for being there, for stating his position well," Dante Acosta , a Republican financial adviser from Woodland Hills, Calif., said after hearing Hunter speak at the Latino conference. "It's possible it's not the most favorable crowd [Hunter] could go to, but when you meet him in person, you see he has the courage of his convictions."

Huckabee, basking in his warm reception at the NEA conference, called his attendance there "a matter of respect" to educators, regardless of political affiliation. "This is not about politics. This is about the future of our kids," he said.