Sen. John F. Kerry had a simple message for the NAACP's annual convention Thursday. I'm here. He's not.
Unlike President Bush, who had cited a scheduling conflict in declining an invitation to speak at the gathering this week, the Massachusetts Democrat said he "will be a president who is truly a uniter, not one who seeks to divide the nation by race or riches or by any other label."
"I understand you've been having trouble getting some speakers," Kerry joked at the outset of a 50-minute speech that touched on a range of issues deemed important to the black community, such as the conflict in the Sudan and the disputed 2000 presidential election, which Kerry called the most tainted in history. "The president may be too busy to speak to you now," he said. "He'll have plenty of time after November 2."
A White House communications director Dan Bartlett on Thursday called the leadership of the NAACP intolerant and said Bush, who has been stung by criticism from the group in the past, would be addressing the Urban League, another group that advocates for civil rights, next week.
Kerry was warmly received by the few thousand delegates from across the country who chanted his name as he walked on stage. Some shouted words of encouragement from their seats or sprang to their feet to urge him on.
"There's a lot of love in this room, I'm telling you," Kerry responded to a man who shouted his affections. "I want to turn this love into votes. I want to turn this love into action. I want to turn this love into change."
After criticism from some black leaders who said he had hired few black staff members and failed to reach out to their communities, Kerry's campaign has stepped up efforts to secure the Democratic Party's traditionally strong relationship with African Americans. Thirty percent of his staffers are people of color, according to Allison Dobson, a campaign spokeswoman. He announced Wednesday that Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama will be the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention. About 40 percent of delegates to that convention will be members of minority groups.
Kerry launched a $2 million advertising campaign targeting black voters, but he quickly agreed to revise it in the face of criticism from the Congressional Black Caucus. Twenty-five of the caucus's 27 members reviewed the TV and radio ads Wednesday morning, and unanimously deemed them "a bit lackluster," caucus chairman Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) said. Several members complained to the Kerry campaign, which sent aides to meet with black lawmakers at the Capitol on Thursday.
"We came to an agreement the ads would be changed, and some of them would be pulled" until replacements could be produced, Cummings said. The new ads, he said, will emphasize Kerry's differences with Bush on key issues such as job creation. They also will feature black House members from swing states testifying to their support of Kerry.
The original ad, which showed Kerry mingling with black audiences and hugging an African American man, did not do enough to highlight the stakes of the presidential race, Cummings said. "We emphasized it was not enough for people just to like Kerry, but for them to understand that four more years of Bush" would seriously damage the black community's agenda, especially civil rights laws subject to federal judges' review, he said.
"To us, this is the most important election that we will experience in our lifetime," said Cummings, 53. The failure to show the ads to the black caucus before airing them, he said, "was a campaign oversight, and it was corrected. . . . We were satisfied."
In Philadelphia, despite Kerry's claim, not everyone was feeling the love. "It may make a difference that he is paying us attention now, but sometimes it bugs me to be targeted at such a late date," said Alice Jeffery, a retired middle school teacher from Memphis. Still, she called Kerry the "lesser of two evils."
But Abraham Mencer, 75, a retired Air Force major from Willingboro, N.J., said, "I don't see how you can criticize him when you look at the other choice." That sentiment was echoed by many others there who gave lukewarm approval of Kerry but lambasted Bush for his absence. "Showing up is a big thing for us," said Marsha Aiken, 52, of New York. "He could have just sat back at home, knowing that for us he is the better candidate."
Kerry spoke of the connection between religious faith and deeds as he called on the Bush administration to address the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, Sudan, which Kerry labeled "genocide." The Bush administration has avoided that term for the conflict in the African nation, but Kerry said he would go further, calling for "an international humanitarian intervention."
He drew a standing ovation by bringing up the election that brought Bush to power. "We are not only going to make sure that every single vote counts; we're going to make sure that every single vote is counted."
The speech marked Kerry's first campaign event after a two-day hiatus spent honing his convention speech in Boston. On his campaign plane Thursday he told reporters he had been huddling with speechwriters, some of whom made the trip to Philadelphia with him, until 10:30 the night before. The speech would be more personal than others he has given, Kerry said, adding that he was doing much of the writing himself, in longhand on notepads. He leaves Saturday for a four-day vacation on Nantucket, Mass.
Staff writer Charles Babington contributed to this report from Washington.