Before Urban League, Bush Makes His Case for Black Support of GOP
By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 24, 2004; Page A05
DETROIT, July 23 -- President Bush accused the Democratic Party on Friday of taking African Americans for granted and suggested they would have more political leverage if they spread their votes around. But he admitted that the Republican Party "has got a lot of work to do" to improve its paltry support among minority voters.
The president made his appeal during the annual conference of the National Urban League, which provided a respectful yet cool forum for him to try to revive his credentials as a compassionate conservative. Earlier this month, he infuriated the NAACP, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization, by refusing a speaking invitation for the fourth year in a row.
"Does the Democrat Party take African American voters for granted?" Bush asked, to scattered applause from the mostly black audience. "It's a fair question. I know plenty of politicians assume they have your vote. But do they earn it and do they deserve it?"
Bush's conciliatory appearance in the swing state of Michigan marked his most determined effort yet to prepare for the fall battle over the tiny slice of independent voters by adding more inclusive rhetoric to a campaign repertoire that has been dominated by red-meat conservatism.
"Is it a good thing for the African American community to be represented mainly by one political party?" Bush said. "That's a legitimate question. How is it possible to gain political leverage if the party is never forced to compete?"
The president adopted the cadence of a Baptist preacher as he rapidly listed his goals for education, tax cuts, and crime and drugs, adding as a refrain at the end of each sentence: "Take a look at my agenda."
Bush has had a sporadic record of outreach to African Americans during his term, hosting numerous East Room events with largely black audiences but giving little attention to what his aides call his "compassion agenda" after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In late 2002, Republicans' image was hurt by racially divisive comments by Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who resigned as majority leader because of the incident.
Bush's remarks were described by aides as an aggressive bid to improve on the 8 percent of the black vote he won in 2000, although strategists in both parties call that an uphill battle. Still, GOP strategists said they consider it essential to Bush's image among moderate, suburban voters that he not be viewed as writing off African Americans.
Bush also agreed to speak next month in Washington to the Unity convention, the largest gathering of minority journalists of color.
Bush's opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), had gone before the Urban League the day before with plans to create jobs and curtail gang violence. He asserted that for him it was "not just a check-the-box campaign stop" and promised that he wanted the members "at the table with me in a full partnership."
Bush spoke to an audience of about 1,500, while a throng of 4,000 convention attendees filled a much larger hall to see Kerry on Thursday. Ricky Clemons, the Urban League's vice president of public relations, attributed the difference to "security concerns" and said "hundreds" were turned away from the first-come, first-served Bush event.
Bush never named Kerry but simply said, "I'm here to say that there is an alternative this year." Kerry's campaign called the appearance a classic case of damage control after the criticism for refusing to appear at the NAACP convention.
Bush's aides at first said he had a scheduling conflict. But he went bike-riding on the opening day of the convention, and they later attributed the decision to inflammatory criticism by the group's leaders. NAACP Chairman Julian Bond has said the Republican Party's idea of equal rights "is the American flag and the Confederate swastika flying side by side."
The White House transcript showed that Bush's 39-minute address was interrupted by applause 60 times, although much of it was scattered, and some members stayed seated as he was welcomed to the stage with applause. One of them, Luther W. Seabrook, 75, of Charleston, S.C., said Bush looked like "a spoiled brat" for his handling of the NAACP but said that at the Urban League "he did pretty good, considering what he had to work with."
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