Three Democratic White House hopefuls appeared before the NAACP on Thursday, begging for redemption after failing to attend a candidate forum earlier in the week.
The contrition from Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich followed a fiery scolding Monday by NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, who charged that the three had lost their legitimacy among black voters and equated their political capital to ``Confederate dollars.''
The format seemed designed to humble the would-be presidents, allowing each man ''no more than five minutes for the purpose of public apology and explanation,'' a parameter announced ceremoniously as each candidate took the podium at the Miami Beach Convention Center.
The apologies came on the convention's final day.
''I'm sorry I'm late in coming,'' said Lieberman, acknowledging that the NAACP's voter-registration drive in 2000 almost made him vice president as Al Gore's running mate.
``But I hope you agree with me that it's never too late to do the right thing, and the right thing was being here.''
Lieberman and the others all said earlier in the week that scheduling conflicts prevented them from attending the Monday forum.
NAACP officials and some campaigns said the real reason was a little-known agreement among four of the nine Democrats in the race -- Lieberman, Gephardt, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards -- to limit their joint appearances.
Kerry and Edwards attended the forum only after intense negotiations and sharp warnings from Mfume not to take the NAACP for granted.
Kucinich said Thursday that he skipped the forum to remain in Washington for a key Medicare vote and to maintain his perfect voting attendance record.
''I'm very sorry I wasn't able to be here,'' he said, closing his remarks by quoting a familiar hymn: ``Amazing grace, how sweet it is. Once was lost, now I'm found.''
Lieberman, in an interview after his speech, said that his absence was the result of a ''misunderstanding'' with his campaign staff.
All three cited Martin Luther King Jr., with Lieberman recalling his participation in the 1963 March on Washington, Gephardt saying that he quotes the civil-rights leader in every campaign speech and Kucinich speaking of Dr. King's commitment to nonviolence.
The candidates received moderate applause, and Mfume stopped short of embracing their efforts.
Asked if the apologies were satisfactory, Mfume said he accepted them but could not judge further.
''Mr. Kucinich said I'm sorry two times in the five minutes that he was afforded. He may have said it three times,'' Mfume recalled.
``Mr. Gephardt said I'm sorry and I apologize, and Mr. Lieberman said I apologize, I'm sorry and I'm sorry.
''It's difficult for me to measure how I perceived them,'' Mfume added, ``I just heard them.''
The spat is a potential danger for Democrats, who cannot afford to alienate their party's most loyal constituency so close to the 2004 presidential election.
For the individual candidates, they can't risk losing support from black voters who could prove pivotal in choosing the nominee, thanks to a series of early primary elections in southern states such as South Carolina and Virginia with high concentrations of black voters.
The flap over the candidates' absences overshadowed the attempts this week by NAACP leaders to condemn President Bush and his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, for declining invitations to attend the convention.
In his address to the convention Thursday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson barely touched on the controversy involving the Democrats, focusing his ire on the Bushes.
Afterward, Jackson told reporters that the tensions over the Democratic presidential forum had been ''overplayed'' and that he was more concerned with the war in Iraq and the economy's disproportionate effects on blacks.
''There is no lasting negative residual,'' Jackson said of the forum no-shows. ``That's behind us.''
Convention attendees, however, were more ambivalent.
''If I invite you to my house for dinner, you can't decide to come whatever day you think is convenient for you,'' said Johnnye Britt, president of the NAACP branch in Stamford, Conn., Lieberman's home state. ``By then, the party's over.''
© 2003 The Miami Herald