Published July 11, 2012
Mitt Romney, in an address to the NAACP annual convention, accused President Obama Wednesday of falling short on helping lift people out of poverty -- and described as "nonsense" the president's charge that Romney is just trying to "help the rich."
Romney, speaking in Houston, at times drew polite applause from the crowd but also elicited a robust round of boos when he said he wants to eliminate the federal health care overhaul.
The audience response underscored the uphill climb the Republican presidential candidate faces in trying to court black voters, who overwhelmingly supported the candidate who would be the first black president in 2008.
Romney said at the top of his speech that he doesn't "count anybody out" and doesn't "make a habit of presuming anyone's support."
Though he at one point had to pause for boos, when he said he wants to end "ObamaCare," Romney plugged away at his theme -- honing in on the sorry state of the economy and trying to make the case that black families are not faring very well under the current president.
"The president wants to make this campaign about blaming the rich, and I want to make this campaign about helping the middle class in America," Romney said.
He told Fox News later the campaign "expected" the boos. "But I'm going to give the NAACP the same message as I've given the rest of the country."
Romney said he spoke after the speech with a group of leaders who said members don't want to say publicly that they are unhappy with what Obama has done to improve public education or the economy.
He claimed his vision "will lift people from poverty and will help prevent people from becoming poor in the first place. My campaign is about helping the people who need help. The course the president has set won't do that. My course will."
Romney said that barriers to equality have not come down despite the election of the country's first black president.
"Many barriers remain. Old inequities persist. In some ways, the challenges are even more complicated than before," he said. "If equal opportunity in America were an accomplished fact, then a chronically bad economy would be equally bad for everyone. Instead, it's worse for African-Americans in almost every way."
The 14.4 percent unemployment rate among blacks is much higher than the 8.2 percent national average.
But for Romney, his message is a difficult sell -- 95 percent of blacks backed Obama in 2008. Obama's campaign said in a statement Wednesday that Romney is the "wrong choice" for black communities.
Obama spoke to the group during his 2008 campaign, as did his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain. Obama doesn't plan to speak this year -- instead, Vice President Joe Biden will address the annual convention on Thursday. Obama plans to address the Urban League later this month.
Romney rarely speaks to a predominantly black audience at political events. One exception was a May visit to a charter school in Philadelphia, where he cast fixing the education system as a way to help blacks and other minorities.
In framing education as a civil rights issue, Romney is following in George W. Bush's footsteps. At a sweeping address to the NAACP in 2000, Bush, then the Republican presidential nominee, said the education system should "leave no child behind" -- and he labeled the "soft bigotry of low expectations" as part of the problem facing black students.
The likely 2012 Republican nominee has a personal history with civil rights issues. Romney's father, George, spoke out against segregation in the 1960s and as governor of Michigan toured his state's inner cities as race riots racked Detroit and other urban areas across the country. He went on to lead the Housing and Urban Development Department, where he pushed for housing reforms to help blacks.
Diminished enthusiasm for the president in the wake of the economic downturn could dampen black turnout. And that could make the difference in Southern states Obama won in 2008, particularly North Carolina and Virginia.
Romney's address to the group also comes as Democrats and minority communities are expressing concern over a series of tough voter identification laws in a handful of states. Critics say the laws could make it harder for blacks and Hispanics to vote. Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking to the NAACP a day earlier, likened the laws to Jim Crow-era poll taxes.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.