The 95th annual NAACP convention will end here today with a speech by Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry.
But Kerry's appearance is being overshadowed by the candidate who never showed up, President Bush. His decision to skip the gathering for the fourth straight time had members of the nation's largest and oldest civil rights organization buzzing with anger.
"I think the president's failure to appear is bad policy and bad politics," snapped Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street, an NAACP member and Democrat. Nilenia M. Cordero, 21, an intern, said Bush "says he's running as a president who reaches out to everybody, but him not coming shows a lot. It seems it's not important to him."
The president's actions came despite pledges by Republicans to wage a stronger effort to reach out to black voters, who have supported Democrats in presidential elections over the past four decades by about 9 to 1.
Some black conservatives said they understood why Bush did not want to address a hostile crowd, but others said he missed a chance to bravely tout his campaign platform. Liberal pundits said snubbing the NAACP indicates to southern white conservatives that Bush stands with them, not with black civil rights leaders.
Bush originally said he could not address the NAACP because of a scheduling conflict, but later acknowledged that his relationship with the group is "nonexistent," saying, "Have you heard some of the names they've called me?"
The animosity started during Bush's presidential campaign four years ago, when the NAACP financed a television ad in which the daughter of a black man who was lynched in Texas said Bush's failure to strengthen the state's human rights laws "was like my father was killed all over again." Bush, Texas governor for six years, was insulted, conservatives said.
That was followed by the battle over vote totals in Florida, where black voters complained of being harassed and disqualified at the polls, angering NAACP officials.
During Bush's term, black unemployment, as low as 8 percent during the Clinton administration, rose to double digits. Bush supported much of what the NAACP did not: school vouchers, tax cuts and abolishing race-based preferences in higher education.
Shortly before the NAACP convention, Chairman Julian Bond said Republicans draw their "most rabid supporters from the Taliban wing of American politics."
Bond was unapologetic. If Bush is not willing to confront people who disagree with him, Bond said, "he wouldn't be able to go anywhere." NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said he was called anti-Democratic for his frequent criticism of President Bill Clinton, who appeared at the convention almost yearly.
"Bush is the first president not to have any dialogue whatsoever," Mfume said.
Bush attended the National Urban League convention for the first time last year and has accepted an invitation to address this year's meeting in Detroit on July 22. Kerry is to follow a day later. Leaders of the largest Hispanic civil rights groups, including the National Council of La Raza, said Bush has not addressed their conventions for the past four years. White House officials said it is pointless for Bush to talk to a group that has exhibited such consistent hostility. Bush aides said it is inaccurate and unfair to equate the president's rift with the NAACP's leadership with a lack of interest in black voters.
Other GOP leaders have reached out to minorities. Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie has traveled to Detroit, Philadelphia, New York and Cleveland on an "African American Economic Empowerment Tour" with guests such as boxing promoter Don King, Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) and Miss America 2003, Erika Harold.
Comparing that outreach to dismissing the NAACP, an organization with 500,000 members, shows that Republicans have a poor understanding of the black community, said Bruce L. Payne, a lecturer at Duke University's Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy.
Payne said he believes that Bush's decision to stay away from the convention sent a message to his base of white voters in the South.
"It's a subtle signal that says, 'I'm not on their side, I'm on your side,' " Payne said. "You send subtle signals to the conservative white South that we don't like those radical extremist black leaders, even though no fair-minded person thinks the NAACP is radical."
White House communications director Dan Bartlett called Payne's comment "absurdly false and offensive to even suggest."
"President Bush has demonstrated both in policy and action that he's serious about reaching out to African Americans of all political persuasions," Bartlett said. "He will continue to meet with African Americans throughout the country to discuss a shared agenda of hope and opportunity for people from all walks of life."
Larry Elder, a black conservative who hosts a syndicated radio talk show in Los Angeles, said that Bush had reason to stay away from the NAACP convention, but that he believes Bush should have attended. "He's not going to win over the people in the audience," Elder said, "but he's going to win over the people on the outside who can see that he is candid."
Peter N. Kirsanow, a Bush appointee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said the NAACP gave Bush reason to skip the convention.
"He went there in 2000 and what did it get him?" Kirsanow said. "It got him an . . . ad that suggested he was somehow complicit in the dragging death of James Byrd [in Texas in 1998]. There's only so many times that you can be insulted and abused."
Staff writer Mike Allen in Washington contributed to this report.