Romney booed before NAACP
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HOUSTON -- Although President Barack Obama swept into the White House with the overwhelming support of black voters, Mitt Romney appeared Wednesday before the NAACP with a bold claim: "If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him," he said.
Mr. Romney's assertion was met with cackles and boos -- as well as tepid applause -- and was emblematic of his entire speech, in which he tried to appeal to blacks while offering tough policy prescriptions that are unpopular with them.
In a roughly 25-minute speech at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's annual convention in Houston, Mr. Romney promised to fight teachers unions and repeal the president's health care plan.
When he said he would "eliminate every nonessential, expensive program I can find -- that includes Obamacare," the crowd booed, the first of several instances of vocal disagreement. Mr. Romney grinned nervously and deviated slightly from his prepared remarks, as he tried to explain his position.
Mr. Romney's speech was blunt and delivered with little of the rhetorical flourish or soaring language that is typical when celebrating the history of the civil rights movement. Instead, Mr. Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, came straight to the point, awkwardly acknowledging the traditional lack of support among blacks for a candidate from his party.
But even as he accepted that reality, he appeared determined to deliver a tough critique of Mr. Obama's economic policies in the face of an unreceptive crowd. He suggested that their support for Mr. Obama was misplaced, and that his policies as president would make their lives better.
"If I did not believe that my policies and my leadership would help families of color -- and families of any color -- more than the policies and leadership of President Obama, I would not be running for president," he said.
Later, in a Fox News interview with Neil Cavuto, Mr. Romney said the booing was not a surprise. "We expected that, of course," he said. "But, you know, I am going to give the same message to the NAACP that I give across the country, which is that Obamacare is killing jobs."
He added, "I expect to get African-American votes."
Although Mr. Obama, the country's first black president, won 95 percent of the black vote in 2008 according to exit polls, Mr. Romney is not ceding any ground in what is expected to be a close election in November. The black vote, which is still overwhelmingly in Mr. Obama's column, could prove crucial in swing states such as North Carolina and Virginia.
In May, Mr. Romney hired a consultant, Tara Wall, to help with outreach to black voters, and he also visited an inner-city charter school in West Philadelphia, where he was heckled. But his appearance at the NAACP was his most direct wooing of black voters this campaign.
Mr. Romney pointed to economic sufferings of the group, as he has when speaking to Hispanic voters, another critical voting bloc that he may have trouble winning over. "The unemployment rate, the duration of unemployment, average income, median family wealth are all worse in the black community," he said.
Many in the audience gave Mr. Romney credit for speaking to the group, but said they were frustrated with certain aspects of his speech.
"I give him thumbs up for being courageous," said William Braxton, 59, a retiree from Charles County, Md. But Mr. Braxton said he took issue with Mr. Romney's assertion that he would be a better president for blacks.
"I was shocked," Mr. Braxton said. "Never, ever have I heard him say anything about how he would help the poor or underprivileged, let alone the black community. Maybe his view is that he could tell us what we want to hear, and we're supposed to swallow it."
Donna Payne, 48, of Washington, who was at the convention as a representative of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights groups, said Mr. Romney "did the best he could," before she dissolved in laughter.
"To say he would repeal Obama's health care plan is absolutely a joke," Ms. Payne said. "I can't believe he had the nerve to even bring up repealing the plan in the middle of speaking to an audience that fought hard for the health care plan and for coverage. It's a total misread of who you're talking to."
In recent national polls, Mr. Obama overwhelmingly leads Mr. Romney among black voters, many of whom are suspicious of the Republican's record on civil rights and diversity, especially when he was Massachusetts' governor. Upon taking office, for instance, he eliminated the state's Office of Affirmative Action.
Mr. Romney is also a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which until 1978 barred blacks from entering its Mormon priesthood.
But Mr. Romney's father, George W. Romney, a former Michigan governor, was known for his strong support of civil rights. Mr. Romney mentioned his father near the end of his speech, saying: "He was a man of the fairest instincts, and a man of faith who knew that every person was a child of God."
Mr. Obama was invited to address the group as well; he cited a scheduling conflict. Vice President Joe Biden will speak today at the convention.
First Published July 12, 2012 12:01 am