President Bush, addressing one of the nation's oldest civil rights organizations, today asked African Americans to reconsider their traditional allegiance to the Democratic Party and openly appealed to them to vote for him in the November election.
"I'm here to ask for your vote," Bush told the annual convention of the National Urban League in Detroit near the end of a speech in which he extolled his administration's policies and diversity.
While acknowledging that his Republican Party faces a difficult task in appealing for the black community's votes, Bush asked blacks to consider some questions, including "Does the Democrat Party take African American voters for granted?"
Bush made the comments as a new poll showed that blacks overwhelmingly support his opponent, Democratic presidential challenger John F. Kerry. The Massachusetts senator addressed the Urban League convention yesterday, pointing to a number of problems facing blacks under the Bush administration. Kerry cited unemployment above 10 percent, "double the rate for whites."
A BET/CBS News poll released this week showed African Americans favoring Kerry over Bush by an 8 to 1 margin in the November election. But the poll also showed that many black voters feel less than enthusiastic about Kerry's candidacy and do not think he is addressing the issues that matter most to them. Black voters account for about 10 percent of the electorate.
A large majority of black voters (85 percent) believe Bush did not legitimately win the 2000 election, according to the poll. About 83 percent described themselves as dissatisfied or angry with the Bush administration, with only 3 percent saying they were "enthusiastic."
By contrast, 27 percent of those polled said they were enthusiastic about Kerry and 58 percent said they were "satisfied." Those blacks who were dissatisfied or angry with Kerry totaled 11 percent.
Bush accepted an invitation to address the Urban League after having turned down the NAACP last week. The White House initially cited a scheduling conflict, but Bush later made it clear that he objected to NAACP leaders' criticisms of him. He recently described his relationship with those leaders as "nonexistent" and told reporters, "You've heard the rhetoric and the names they've called me."
Addressing the NAACP convention in Philadelphia last week, Kerry chided Bush for spurning the group's invitation and urged African Americans to help defeat a man he accused of dividing the nation by race and wealth.
At the Urban League convention, Bush received a cordial welcome and joked with some of the black leaders in attendance, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, a Democratic presidential contender in 1984 and 1988, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, the New York activist who competed against Kerry in this year's Democratic primaries.
"It's hard to run for office, isn't it, Al?" Bush asked Sharpton, adding, "But I appreciate your putting your hat in the ring."
Sharpton called back from the audience, "It's not over."
"There you go, it's not over," Bush said, "Just don't declare right now."
After appealing for black votes and eliciting some expressions of surprise, Bush said, "No, I know, I know, I know. The Republican Party's got a lot of work to do, I understand that." Then, looking at Jackson, he added, "You didn't need to nod your head that hard, Jesse."
Bush posed a number of questions to black voters as he asked them to reconsider their support for the Democrats.
"Is it a good thing for the African American community to be represented by one political party?" he asked. "Have the traditional solutions of the Democrat Party truly served the African American community. . . . Has class warfare or higher taxes ever created decent jobs in the inner city?"
Bush said, "I'm here to say that there is an alternative this year." He asked the audience to "take a look at my agenda" on such issues as support for small businesses, defending the "institutions of marriage and family," building "a culture of life in America" and waging "a tireless fight against crime and drugs."
"You see, I believe in my heart that the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, is not complete without the perspective and support and contribution of African Americans," Bush said.
In listing accomplishments of his administration that he said benefit blacks, Bush announced what he described as a new initiative between the federal government and the Urban League to expand minority business ownership. He said the project would involve setting up "one-stop centers where minority enterprise can receive business training."
A statement issued by the White House said the Business Roundtable and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation would support the effort to establish "business growth centers" in Urban League local offices across the country.
As Bush focused on attracting black voters, the campaign of Kerry and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina announced a two-week, coast-to-coast "Believe in America Tour" to begin after next week's Democratic convention in Boston.
The campaign said Kerry and Edwards would barnstorm through 21 states in a fleet of buses, trains and boats on a trip "reminiscent of Harry Truman's whistle stop tour across America" in 1948. Making their first trip as the official Democratic nominees, the campaign said in a statement, the two "will trace America's westward expansion, highlighting the optimistic American spirit that is at the heart of the Kerry-Edwards plan to build a stronger America."