Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney didn't expect a warm embrace when he took the stage Wednesday at the NAACP annual convention in Houston.
And he didn't get one.
But the former Massachusetts governor managed to absorb sustained booing after he said he'd eliminate "Obamacare" if elected, and delivered a speech that reached out — a bit — to African-Americans, while remaining consistent with his conservative campaign themes.
His pitch to members of the nation's oldest civil rights group boiled down to this: Given the economic and educational problems that still beset the black community, has historic and overwhelming loyalty to the Democratic Party really paid off?
"When decades of the same promises keep producing the same failures, then it's reasonable to rethink our approach — and consider a new plan," Romney said.
He touted his support of charter schools and vouchers, views not unlike those of the Obama administration, and attempted to dismiss the notion that his campaign was about helping the rich.
"The president wants to make this a campaign about blaming the rich," he said. "I want to make this a campaign about helping the middle class." The audience reaction? Crickets.
Romney did not touch the issue of voter ID laws that opponents see as conservative efforts to suppress the nonwhite vote.
And Romney was careful to acknowledge President Obama's historic election. But he segued into a laundry list of economic data, including the 14.4 percent unemployment rate in the black community, and suggested, if obliquely, that the nation's first black president had failed them.
"If equal opportunity in America were an accomplished fact, then a chronically bad economy would be equally bad for everyone," Romney said. "Instead, it's worse for African-Americans in almost every way."
Romney wrapped himself in the civil rights record of his late father, Michigan Gov. George Romney, and closed without a mention of his Mormon faith, but on a strong religious note.
"Every good cause on this Earth relies in the end on a plan better than ours," Romney said, and then quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: "Without dependence on God, our efforts turn to ashes and our sunrises into darkest night."
Even the moment he was booed (did Romney's speechwriters deliberately choose the freighted word "Obamacare"?) seemed calibrated to resonate with voters outside the walls of the convention hall.
-- Even polls taken after the Supreme Court upheld most of Obama's health care law show that at least half of Americans still oppose the legislation.
-- His strong case for school choice, including a proposal to have federal money "linked to a student, so that parents can send their child to any public or charter school, or to a private school, where permitted," appeals to some corners of the African-American electorate. But it is aimed directly at Romney's conservative base.
-- He slipped in a quick reference to note his party-consistent opposition to same-sex marriage, which Obama and the NAACP have endorsed, but which remains an issue that has caused divisions in the black community. "As president," he said, to some applause, "I will promote strong families — and I will defend traditional marriage."
-- He doubled down on his jobs message, including his stated aim to reduce government spending by eliminating "expensive nonessential programs like Obamacare." He cited a Chamber of Commerce members' survey (if audience eye-rolling could be heard, there would have been noise at his invocation of the powerful business network) suggesting that the health care law would make three-quarters of them less likely to hire people.
Peeling off African-American voters, more than 95 percent of whom voted for Obama in 2008, has always been a long shot for Republicans — even without an African-American incumbent in the White House.
Romney acknowledged that reality, but said he's not counting anybody out. "I have no hidden agenda," he said. "If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him."
He left the stage a short time later, alone, and to a smattering of polite applause.
In a statement after the speech, NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous said: "While we are glad that Governor Romney recognized the power of the black electorate, he laid out an agenda that was antithetical to many of our interests. His criticism of the Affordable Care Act — legislation that will improve access to quality health care for millions — signals his fundamental misunderstanding of the needs of many African Americans."
NAACP Chairman Roslyn M. Brock said of Romney: "We appreciate that he was courageous and took the opportunity to speak with us directly."
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