George W. Bush Monday addressed the national meeting of the NAACP, the country's preeminent traditional civil rights group, becoming the first Republican presidential candidate to do so since his father, George H.W. Bush, spoke to the group in 1988.
"While some in my party have avoided the NAACP, and while some in the NAACP have avoided my party, I'm proud to be here," Bush told an audience of 3,500.
The Texas governor invoked Abraham Lincoln, W.E.B. DuBois and Jackie Robinson in a speech that acknowledged the Republican Party's failure to attract black voters, but was otherwise a basic Bush stump speech, reworked to highlight education and economic policies conceived to help disadvantaged students and would-be home buyers.
"For my party, there's no escaping the reality that the party of Lincoln has not always carried the mantle of Lincoln," he said.
Bush, who almost doubled his numbers with blacks between his first and second campaigns for the Texas governors office, boasted that black fourth graders in Texas have the highest math test scores in the country. But he failed to announce any new policy initiatives or mention the Confederate battle flag that put him on the outs with the NAACP earlier this year.
"He hasn't proposed any polices that represent any major shift from what Republicans in Congress would like to do, or any that would be attractive to African Americans or Hispanics," said David Bositis, who studies black voting patterns at the Joint Center on Political and Economic Studies in Washington.
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But Bush's target audience wasn't necessarily inside the Baltimore Convention Center. "He is primarily addressing that strategy to white swing voters, principally in suburbs, and probably more women than men," Bositis says.
Bush gained some credibility just by showing up, unlike Bob Dole, who snubbed the NAACP in 1996. "Had he not shown up, the negatives would have been serious," says Howard University political scientist Lorenzo Morris, "and it would have been a signal to moderate white voters as well who would see him as less able to appeal to the center."
The Bush campaign, which sometimes refers to the governor as a "different kind of Republican," has been telegraphing a message of inclusion all along. Bush has made several campaign appearances at schools where most of the students are minorities. Three Republican members of congress a woman, a Latino and an African-American -- were elevated last week to leadership positions at the GOP convention, where retired Gen. Colin Powell wil also appear. And Bush's nephew, whose mother is Mexican-American, appears in his uncle's Spanish-language campaign ads.
|Death Penalty Protest|
Death penalty protesters interrupted an introduction for George W. Bush at the NAACP convention, with one shouting, "An innocent man was murdered by Governor Bush."
Security forces led the four or five protesters out after they waved signs with pictures of Gary Graham, who was executed June 22 in Texas. Graham, who was convicted largely on the testimony of one witness, was the 135th prisoner executed since Bush became governor in 1995.
"Remember Gary Graham! Remember Gary Graham!" the protesters shouted as Bush was introduced, but before he began to speak.
The NAACP has called the execution of Graham a "gross travesty of justice" and has called for a national moratorium on all executions. (AP)
Since blacks tend overwhelmingly to support Democrats in presidential elections, Bositis thinks 15 percent of their vote is the best Bush can hope for in November.
"Given the 90-plus percent Democratic voting [of blacks], the most viable strategy for the Republicans is to neutralize the intensity associated with the election," says Morris.
By speaking regularly to black groups, "Bush is simply saying there is nothing to fear from him," says Morris. That could dampen high turnout that might otherwise be motivated by fear surrounding issues like Supreme Court nominations.
At the same time, Bush's efforts with blacks may help him at the margins in some battleground states. American University historian Allan J. Lichtman says pulling even some of the black vote could help the Republican candidate in California, New York, Michigan, Illinois and Florida.
But it's not enough to simply show up. Lichtman says Bush has to make an affirmative case to blacks. "If you want to win votes with particular constituencies, you've got to give them something. Its not enough to not be a demon."