An historically diverse field of Democratic presidential candidates _ a woman, a black, an Hispanic and five whites _ denounced an hours-old Supreme Court desegregation ruling Thursday night and said the nation's slow march to racial unity is far from over.
"We have made enormous progress, but the progress we have made is not good enough," said Sen. Barack Obama, the son of a man from Kenya and a woman from Kansas.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the first female candidate with a serious shot at the presidency, challenged those who would suggest otherwise. "There is so much left to be done and for anyone to assert that race is not a problem in America today is to deny the reality in front of our very eyes."
In their third primary debate, the two leading candidates and their fellow Democrats played to the emotions of a predominantly black audience, fighting for a voting bloc that is crucial in the party's nomination process. They stood united against the Supreme Court and its historic ruling rolling back a half-century of school desegregation laws.
Clinton said the decision "turned the clock back" on history.
Questions about AIDS, criminal justice, education, taxes, outsourcing jobs, poverty and the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina all led to the same point: The racial divide still exists.
Clinton drew a huge cheer when she suggested there was a hint of racism in the way AIDS is addressed in this country. "Let me just put this in perspective: If HIV-AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34 there would be an outraged, outcry in this country."
Delaware Sen. Joe Biden urged people to be tested for the virus, noting that he and Obama had done so. Cracked the Illinois senator: "I just want to make clear I got tested with Michelle," his wife, Obama said drawing laughter from the predominantly black audience.
While the first two debates focused on their narrow differences on Iraq, moderator Tavis Smiley promised to steer the candidates to other issues that matter to black America, including health care, education, police accountability, housing and voting rights.
The debate was held at Howard University, a historically black college in the nation's capital.
Black voters are a large and critical part of the Democratic primary electorate, making the debate a must-attend for candidates seeking the party's presidential nomination. Civil rights activist Al Sharpton and Princeton University scholar Cornel West were among those in the audience.
A half century of desegregation law _ and racial tension _ was laid bare for the Democrats hours before they met. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court clamped historic new limits on school desegregation plans.
The conservative majority cited the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case to bolster its precedent-shattering decision, an act termed a "cruel irony" by Justice John Paul Stevens in his dissent. The 1954 ruling led to the end of state-sponsored school segregation in the United States.
Obama, the only black candidate in the eight-person field, spoke of civil rights leaders who fought for Brown v. Board of Education and other precedents curbed by the high court. "If it were not for them," he said, "I would not be standing here."
Biden noted that he voted against confirmation of Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion. He said he was tough on Roberts. "The problem is the rest of us were not tough enough," he said, seeming to take a jab at fellow Democrats. "They have turned the court upside down."
All the Democratic candidates in the Senate opposed the confirmation of conservative Justice Samuel Alito, another of President Bush's nominees. Clinton, Biden and Obama voted against Roberts; Sen. Chris Dodd voted for his nomination.
The debate was an opportunity for Obama, who got mixed reviews from his first two debate performances, to stand out and share a bond with the audience. He is in a tight contest for the black vote with Clinton, who benefits from goodwill for her husband among blacks.
Segregation was not the only issue. In turn, the candidates discussed their hopes to stem poverty, close the economic gap between the rich and poor, fight AIDS and overhaul a judicial system that doesn't always seem colorblind.
"This issue of poverty is the cause of my life," said John Edwards, the 2004 vice presidential nominee.
Said Obama: "It starts with birth."
Obama criticized Bush's No Child Left Behind program. "You can't leave the money behind and that's what's been done," he said.
Clinton spoke of her efforts in Arkansas to raise school standards, "most especially for minority children."
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, the country's only black governor, introduced the candidates with a warning that a dispirited GOP "is not enough to elect a Democratic president nor should it be. We need to offer a more positive and hopeful vision ... to run on what we are for and not just what we are against."
Shouts of "Obama!" rang out amid the cheers for the eight candidates.