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."
No one booed, which was one of the White House's main concerns for the day. He received some approving shouts of "Amen!" and "Yo! Yo!"
The first four-fifths of Bush's remarks consisted of an adaptation of his stump speech, with the repeated addition of the phrase "progress for African Americans and all Americans," and a detour to list eight of the prominent African Americans in his administration, including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, General Services Administration Administrator Stephen A. Perry and Office of Personnel Management director Kay Coles James.
Bush frequently referred to a positive role for government "to help people have the tools so they can help themselves."
The Bush-Cheney campaign paid for the event at the Detroit Marriott Renaissance Center Hotel, and at the end the president switched to an overtly political pitch after describing his records and goals. "I'm here for another reason," he said. "I'm here to ask for your vote."
That was greeted by applause but also by guffaws, which Bush did not miss. "No, I know, I know, I know," he said. "The Republican Party has got a lot of work to do. I understand that."
Jesse L. Jackson sat in the front row, and Bush drew laughter by ad-libbing, "You didn't need to nod your head that hard, Jesse."
Bush also joked with Al Sharpton, who had sought the Democratic nomination and was also in the front row. "I appreciate your putting your hat in the ring," Bush said. Sharpton quipped, "It's not over."
Jackson, president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, said afterward that he had asked Bush for a private meeting about protecting African American votes in the Nov. 2 election. Jackson said he described abuses in Florida and elsewhere. "He said, 'That's not right. I'll talk to Karl Rove [Bush's senior adviser] and get back to you,' " Jackson said.
Jackson said he has "a congenial personal relationship" with Bush, but he said the president has had "a closed-door policy" for many of the interests of African Americans. "Those he anticipates will disagree with him, he pushes them away."
Bush lingered to pose for photos and dispense bearhugs. "I believe in my heart," he said, "that the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, is not complete without the perspective and support and contribution of African Americans."