HOUSTON — Unflinching before the NAACP, Mitt Romney declared Wednesday he’d do more for African-Americans than Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president. He drew jeers when he lambasted the Democrat’s policies.
“If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him,” Romney told the group’s annual convention. Pausing as some in the crowd heckled, he added, “You take a look!”
“For real?” yelled someone in the crowd.
The reception was occasionally rocky though generally polite as the Republican presidential candidate sought to woo a Democratic bloc that voted heavily for Obama four years ago and is certain to do so again. Romney was booed when he vowed to repeal “Obamacare” — the Democrat’s signature health care measure — and the crowd interrupted him when he accused Obama of failing to spark a more robust economic recovery.
“I know the president has said he will do those things. But he has not. He cannot. He will not,” Romney said as the crowd’s murmurs turned to groans.
At some points, Romney earned scattered clapping for his promises to create jobs and improve education. But his criticism of Obama didn’t set well with some in the audience.
“I am going to eliminate every non-essential, expensive program that I can find — and that includes Obamacare,” Romney said, standing motionless as the crowd jeered for 15 seconds. He then noted a survey from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as support for his position, and was greeted with silence.
“Dumb,” Bill Lucy, a member of the NAACP board, said afterward.
William Braxton, a 59-year-old retiree from Maryland, added: “I thought he had a lot of nerve. That really took me by surprise, his attacking Obama that way.”
And James Pinkett, a retired utility worker, said: “He must not know how much support there is in the African-American community for health care, and he comes in and calls it Obamacare. … We just think it should be given a chance to work.”
In an interview with Fox News after the speech, Romney said he had expected the negative reaction to some of his comments. “I am going to give the same message to the NAACP that I give across the country which is that Obamacare is killing jobs,” he said.
Four months before the election, Romney’s appearance at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People convention was a direct, aggressive appeal for support from across the political spectrum in what polls show is a close contest. Romney doesn’t expect to win a majority of black voters — 95 percent backed Obama in 2008 — but he’s trying to show independent and swing voters that he’s willing to reach out to diverse audiences, while demonstrating that his campaign and the Republican Party he leads are inclusive.
Obama spoke to the Baltimore-based NAACP during the 2008 campaign, as did his Republican opponent that year, Sen. John McCain. The president has dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to address the group on Thursday. Obama is scheduled to address the National Urban League later this month.
On Wednesday, Romney confronted race head-on, with a bold assertion that he’d be a better president for the black community than one of their own.
Within minutes of taking the stage, Romney made note of his opponent’s historic election achievement — and then accused him of not doing enough to help African-American families on everything from family policy to education to health care.
“If you understood who I truly am in my heart, and if it were possible to fully communicate what I believe is in the real, enduring best interest of African-American families, you would vote for me for president,” Romney said to murmuring from the crowd.
Romney added: “I want you to know that if I did not believe that my policies and my leadership would help families of color — and families of any color — more than the policies and leadership of President Obama, I would not be running for president.”
Romney also said much more must be done to improve education in the nation’s cities, and he vowed to help put blacks back to work. Citing June labor reports, he noted that the 14.4 percent unemployment rate among blacks is much higher than the 8.2 percent national average. Blacks also tend to be unemployed longer, and black families have a lower median income, Romney said.
Looking to heal wounds on civil rights, Romney said, “The Republican Party’s record, by the measures you rightly apply, is not perfect.” He added: “Any party that claims a perfect record doesn’t know history the way you know it.”
He also highlighted his personal connection to civil rights issues. His father, George Romney, spoke out against segregation in the 1960s and, as governor of Michigan, toured the state’s inner cities as race riots wracked Detroit and other urban areas across the country. The elder Romney went on to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where he pushed for housing reforms to help blacks.
Romney worked to connect with the crowd with religious references, noting the hymns that were played before he was introduced and telling the group that his father was “a man of faith who knew that every person was a child of God.”
Left unsaid: any comments on a series of contentious new voter ID laws that critics say are aimed at making it harder for blacks and Hispanics to vote. At the NAACP convention a day earlier, Attorney General Eric Holder labeled those laws “poll taxes” — a reference to the fees used in some Southern states after the abolition of slavery to disenfranchise black people.
Romney expressed support for voter ID laws during a late April visit to Pennsylvania, which now has one of the toughest voter identification statutes in the nation. “We ought to have voter identification so we know who’s voting and we have a record of that,” Romney said then.
Associated Press writers Philip Elliott in Washington and Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.