PHILADELPHIA – Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) accused President Bush on Thursday of dividing America by race and riches, taking advantage of a White House feud with the NAACP to declare himself a leader of "all of the people."
With Bush refusing to address the civil rights group, most of whose members support Democrats, Kerry said Bush "may be too busy to talk to you, but I have news for you: he's going to have plenty of time after Nov. 2," which is Election Day.
Bush skipped the annual convention to protest the NAACP's criticism of his policies, but will address another influential black organization, the Urban League, next week.
"The current leadership of the NAACP (search) has clearly crossed the line in partisanship and civility, making it impossible to have a constructive dialogue," White House spokesman Dan Bartlett said.
The Republican incumbent has not spoken to the NAACP since the 2000 campaign, when the NAACP National Voter Fund ran an ad that portrayed Bush as unsympathetic to the dragging death of James Byrd (search) in Texas.
Since that campaign, which angered many blacks who complained they were disenfranchised by confusing ballots and mechanical errors in Florida, the NAACP has called Bush an illegal president, compared his anti-abortion views to the Taliban and called his trip to Africa a photo-op.
Bartlett said Bush was at odds with NAACP leaders, not his "many friends who belong to the NAACP." Nonetheless, his absence was viewed as a snub.
Coralee Boulware, an NAACP member from Connecticut, said Bush, "showed disrespect to the people of this country and convention by not coming." NAACP Chairman Julian Bond mocked Bush for avoiding a hostile crowd. "If he didn't go anywhere people criticize him, he'd never leave home," Bond said.
With the soul anthem "We are Family" blaring, Kerry cut through the crowd, shaking hands and patting backs, before delivering an address tailored toward the supportive — yet skeptical — black community.
"We learned our lesson in 2000," he said of the disputed election recount, "and I add my voice to those who have vowed: Never again."
In a foreign policy tracked closely by blacks, Kerry said as president he would use "the full weight of American leadership" to help stop genocide in Sudan. A spokeswoman said that could include military force, but not as a first step.
Otherwise sticking to his stump speech, Kerry said repeatedly, "We can do better!" as he outlined his plans to improve education, health care, civil rights and the economy. He said the unemployment rate for blacks is 10 percent, twice the rate for whites.
Though polls show Democratic voters united against Bush, the Democratic presidential candidate is not beyond reproach from black leaders. They want more minorities on Kerry's staff and several members of the Congressional Black Caucus (search) demanded changes in new TV ads geared toward black voters.
Black leaders, including some who advise Kerry's campaign, privately worry about perceptions that the four-term Massachusetts senator has shallow ties to their community compared to the last two Democratic nominees, Al Gore and Bill Clinton, who were both Southerners.
While Kerry will likely match Gore's 9-to-1 advantage with blacks on Nov. 2, they said, Republican tactics and Kerry failings could suppress turnout.
There was no sign of unease at the NAACP as the crowd shouted words of encouragement — including "We love you!" — and Kerry denounced Bush's absence. "When you're president, you need to talk to all of the people, and that's exactly what I intend to do," he said.
In a slap at Bush, the senator said, "I will be a president who is truly a uniter, not one who seeks to divide one nation by race or riches or by another label."
In Washington, Bush's education secretary, Rod Paige, criticized the NAACP. "You do not own, and you are not the arbiters of, African-American authenticity," said Paige, who is black.
Bush's campaign began airing ads on black radio stations in urban centers, calling Kerry's Senate record extreme and spotty.
After leaving Pennsylvania, a state narrowly won by Democrat Al Gore in 2000, Kerry campaigned in West Virginia, a traditionally Democratic state that backed Bush in 2000.
"I think it's time that we have a president who doesn't just talk about family values, but values families," Kerry said in Charleston, W.Va. His advisers believe Gore lost the state because he did not appeal to social conservative Democrats who put a high premium on values such as faith, family and gun rights.