WASHINGTON — Presidential politics will take center stage in New Orleans on Saturday at the annual "State of the Black Union" symposium, where the hottest topic is likely to be which candidate is there and which one isn't.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will address a largely African-American crowd of thousands in New Orleans' Ernest M. Morial Convention Center — where thousands of the city's poorest residents sought shelter in squalid conditions after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., Clinton's Democratic rival, is skipping the event. He'll focus instead on campaigning in Texas and Ohio in hopes of delivering a knockout blow to Clinton in those states' presidential primaries on March 4.
The Republican presidential candidates, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, also declined to attend the symposium, which television and radio talk show host Tavis Smiley organized and will host.
Obama's refusal to attend and Smiley's criticism of him for doing so have stirred debate within the African-American community and the blogosphere, taking both men to task.
"On one side, there are people who feel he (Obama) is about to make history and you (Smiley) are trying to mess it up," said Ronald Walters, an African-American political science professor at the University of Maryland. "Then there are others who feel that Obama needs to address issues important to African-Americans more than he has."
Clinton, meanwhile, is attending because she has to try to woo back African-American voters who've deserted her in droves, political analysts say. Within a year, African-American support has flipped from favoring her to backing Obama by as much as 80 percent to 90 percent in recent primaries.
Clinton could receive a cool reception from African-Americans, who think that her campaign — especially her husband, former President Bill Clinton — injected race into South Carolina's Democratic primary last month to try to marginalize Obama as "the black candidate."
"Her coming to the event, it's a bit of a risk. She could get a chilly reception," Walters said. "If it hadn't been for South Carolina, she could go into the forum expecting a good reception."
Minyon Moore, a Clinton campaign adviser, said the New York senator doesn't know what to expect on Saturday.
"After all that's been reported and said, what hasn't changed is the commitment of Hillary, and Bill, Clinton to civil rights and racial equality," Moore said. "If people are willing to listen to her, we'll win the day."
Saturday's events will deal largely with issues in Smiley's best-selling book, "The Covenant with Black America," which explores how the African-Americans should address key problems that affect them.
After Clinton readily accepted the invitation and Obama didn't, Smiley began to criticize Obama for not responding to his invitation, saying that some African-American leaders are concerned because Obama hasn't spoken enough about African-American issues on the campaign trail.
Obama brushed off Smiley's criticism last week during an appearance on the "Tom Joyner Morning Show" radio program, which has a largely African-American audience. He said he does address issues covered in Smiley's book.
"I'm going to have to call Tavis and straighten him out on this — I don't know why he (Smiley) hasn't called me directly," Obama told Joyner. "If the notion is that I should only be talking to black people, then I'm not going to win the presidency, because there are a whole lot of people out there who are white, Latino or Asian who've got a whole bunch (of issues) as well."
Obama's campaign offered Michelle Obama to speak on her husband's behalf in New Orleans, but Smiley declined the offer. Obama then sent a letter to Smiley officially turning down his invitation because he'll be campaigning in Texas and Ohio, where he still trails Clinton in opinion polls but is narrowing the gap.
Smiley called Obama's decision "a critical miscalculation and a missed opportunity."
"I think as close as this race is, the concerns of African-American people are important," Smiley said in an interview with McClatchy. "The Clinton campaign has made moves — the appointment of Maggie Williams as campaign manager — to aggressively go after the African-American vote."
The Smiley-Obama flap has fueled sometimes-heated debate within the African-American community. Smiley, speaking on the Joyner program, hinted that he's received death threats for his Obama comments, though he declined to elaborate.
"I've been getting barbecued a lot lately," Smiley told McClatchy. "But it's never been about me. It's only about me now because some people are trying to change the subject. It's about who's coming and who's not."
Many say Smiley is in an ego-driven snit over Obama's rejection. A headline on an article last week on The Root, an African-American-oriented Web site, blared "Who Died and Made Tavis King."
"Tavis and his guests have every right to criticize Obama if they have substantive disagreements with his policy, his approach to politics or his viability as a general candidate," wrote Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a Princeton University African-American studies associate professor. "They do not have a right to create a false, racial litmus test."
Others find fault with Obama.
"Obama's campaign is unraveling," a reader named Jean wrote in a response to a Smiley-Obama post on McClatchy's Election 2008 blog. "His followers act like a cult. Tavis is a very respected broadcaster and has a right to expect cordiality."