I thought the leading Democratic presidential candidates were being petty, politically stupid, and morally unjustified when they refused to participate in a debate co-sponsored by Fox News and the Congressional Black Caucus a few months ago. I will say the same for Republican candidates Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney, Tom Tancredo, and John McCain for refusing to appear at a PBS debate hosted by Tavis Smiley that will focus on minority issues. Tancredo doesn't surprise me, I would say that I doubt he has a race-sensitive bone in his body, except that most of his language on immigration seems designed to appeal to those who very much are race-sensitive but in the wrong direction. Rudy Giuliani does have some episodes during his tenure as mayor of NYC that he may not want people like Al Sharpton haranguing him about. Maybe Mitt Romney is worried about Sharpton continuing his criticism of Romney for belonging to a religious institution that used to be racist. (Doesn't Sharpton support Planned Parenthood?) I can't think of any reason why Thompson and McCain are doing this, and I'm not impressed on the moral level by any of the reasons the others might give, even if it's psychologically understandable.
There is nothing wrong with having a debate that focuses on certain issues. There's nothing wrong with appearing before questioners who will ask you difficult questions, even loaded questions with immoral assumptions. The point of a debate is to be able to answer such people, sometimes answering what's wrong about the questioners' assumptions. Several commenters at the post I linked to above are saying that it would be stupid to show up at a debate where it's clear the point is just to lambaste Republicans for their policies, where everything is framed in terms of trapping them into saying things to make them look foolish to minority voters. But if they can't handle themselves in that kind of environment, then they deserve not to get any votes from minority voters.
There's a reason black voters tend to vote 90% Democratic, and it's not because black people are inherently Democratic or because Republicans advocate policies that are so obviously anti-black that no decent black person would vote for a Republican. There are enough intelligent, well-meaning, and sincere black conservatives to disprove such a ridiculous notion. The real reason, I believe, is because Republicans are typically bad at explaining why they think their views are actually more in the interest of blacks than Democratic policies are, and that's because many Republican candidates simply haven't thought through the issues they need to think through to make that case but have adopted extremely simplisitc justifications for the very policies that I think could be justified much more carefully when the issues are framed differently, in ways that many black voters might be more inclined to listen.
Republicans don't have the easy out of simply supporting some politically correct policy that doesn't accomplish all that much in terms of real social progress. Liberals, just by supporting affirmative action and other band-aids, can get away with not worrying about dealing with the actual wound, because liberals tend to get black votes as long as they don't advocate anything terrible. Conservatives have to work much harder to get black voters, so they need to explain why conservative views are actually more in line with what blacks and other minorities want for this country (as I think is actually the case, at least on some issues, so I think it can be done and just isn't).
When the four leading presidential candidates from the GOP skip out on a debate that would give them the chance to do that, it gives fuel to the myth that Republicans are all racist or at least don't care about issues that affect non-whites. But then it makes me wonder if candidates who would skip out on a debate like this are the ones to make that case.