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Candidates discuss issues at UNITY

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WASHINGTON - Both President George W. Bush and Democratic contender Sen.
John Kerry dropped by a minority journalist convention at the new
Washington Convention Center to make a pitch for the minority vote.

The candidates for the nation's top job over the next four years accepted
invitations to appear at UNITY '04, a convention that takes place every
five years organized by news organizations representing American Indian,
Hispanic, African American and Asian American journalist organizations.

Both candidates essentially used their standard stump speeches laced with
specific comments geared toward minorities. President Bush raised some
eyebrows and elicited guffaws from the audience while answering a question
from Seattle Post Intelligencer editor Mark Trahant on what tribal
sovereignty means to him.

"Tribal sovereignty means that, it's sovereign. You're a - you've been
given sovereignty, and you're viewed as a sovereign entity," said Bush in
what one nearby bystander referred to as a "Yogi Berra moment."

Immediate reactions ranged from derision to bewilderment.

"What exactly does that mean," asked Baxter Smith, an editor with a
suburban Baltimore weekly paper.

At a press conference later in the day, the Rev. Jesse Jackson who also
appeared at the convention, mocked President Bush's answer. Jackson did a
playful reinterpretation of Bush's comments that involved several versions
of sovereignty not found in the dictionary such as "sovereignity."

In fact, the comment was much discussed by the 7,500-plus journalists
attending the convention later in the day and clips from the speech are
making their way around the Internet.

Overall, President Bush received a fairly tepid reaction from the
journalists in attendance that stood in stark contrast to the warm and
enthusiastic reception received by Sen. Kerry. Bush received scattered
applause and only received ovations at the beginning and end of his
hour-plus appearance.

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Some in attendance questioned whether journalists showed bias in their
differing reactions and some were overheard in the hall after the
appearance questioning the propriety of such clear favoritism. Throngs of
journalists greeted Kerry at the conclusion of his speech and the
Massachusetts senator stayed for an additional 10 minutes to shake hands.
Bush made no such effort after the decidedly more restrained reaction to
his appearance.

Even a degree of derision greeted President Bush who was interrupted by a
heckler at one point in the speech. Though press reports later in the day
identified the heckler as a "minority journalist" the man, who looked to be
in his early 30s appeared to be Caucasian.

Masked in all the hoopla over the comment was the substance of President
Bush's remarks. Though he clearly expressed himself less than eloquently,
he did seem to endorse at least the basic idea of tribal sovereignty and
how he believed to best achieve that goal. He touted the $1.1 billion that
he had allocated to tribal school reconstruction and increased loans, via
the Small Business Administration, to encourage tribal members to start
small businesses.

Bush did not answer a question inherent in Trahant's question about the
relationships of tribes to states and his position on this issue was lost
in the tortuous circumlocution of his answer to the sovereignty issue. In
his subsequent press conference, Rev. Jackson addressed the issue squarely.

"As long as Native Americans were perishing on those reservations, it
didn't matter to the state. Now that there is gaming the state wants to
impose itself on the [tribes]."

During his appearance a day before the president's, Sen. Kerry did a bit of
a dodge himself when asked about whether Homeland Security funds should go
directly to the tribes. Kerry said that while some of the money should go
to tribes, that some funding should also be coordinated action between
tribes and federal and state governments,

Kerry was more direct when speaking more generally to the issue of tribal
sovereignty. He said that he would "restore respect" for tribal sovereignty
and "open the doors to the White House for the first Americans."

Moreover, Kerry made a direct promise to the nation's tribes should he be
elected. "I will appoint Native Americans to key positions and bring them
into the White House."

Kerry also addressed the issue of American Indian health and pointed out
that the average life span for American Indians was 17 years shorter than
the average life span of Americans in general. He cited poor health care as
a primary reason for this and promised to make health insurance more widely
available and assailed Bush under whom he said the number of medically
uninsured Americans in general had risen from 36 million to 40 million.