President Bush tried on Friday to sow doubts about Democrats' commitment to black Americans and told black voters "there is an alternative this year" — him.
At the same time, Bush acknowledged, "Listen, the Republican Party has got a lot of work to do. I understand that."
Bush's speech to the Urban League (search), his third since becoming president, came as a new poll showed overwhelming support for John Kerry (search) among black voters. The poll also showed black voters have yet to entirely warm up to the presumptive Democratic nominee.
The president suggested perhaps the Democratic Party had started taking black voters for granted.
"I know plenty of politicians assume they have your vote," he said. "But did they earn it, and do they deserve it?"
Bush drew applause each time he ticked off one of his questions to the group: "Is it a good thing for the African-American community to be represented mainly by one political party?"
"Have the traditional solutions of the Democrat Party truly served the African-American people?"
"There is an alternative this year," Bush said. "Take a look at my agenda."
The speech, coupled with the announcement of an unusual partnership with a special-interest group to nurture minority businesses, was as an election-year bid to use government resources to reach out to black voters. It also served as a slap at the NAACP (search), a group Bush snubbed last week because he believes it has been hostile to him.
Friday's was Bush's 16th trip as president to Michigan, a state he lost in 2000, and his second in 10 days. He scheduled another for July 30, the day after the end of the Democratic convention.
Bush said his administration was stronger for the presence of black officials including Secretary of State Colin Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
He did not mention his opposition to affirmative action in a case that touched off opposition in Michigan and nationwide.
In January 2003, Bush asserted that a program of racial preferences for minority applicants at the University of Michigan was "divisive, unfair and impossible to square with the Constitution." He took a position against the program in a Supreme Court case and did it on the birthday of civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr.
Under the new initiative announced Friday, the administration will seek to expand business ownership among minorities by creating one-stop centers for business training, counseling, financing and contracting.
Bush's Commerce Department, Small Business Administration and other government entities will pool resources to help the Urban League's local offices help minority entrepreneurs.
Blacks supported Democrat Al Gore over Bush by a 9-1 margin in the 2000 election, and the poll released this week by BET/CBS News showed their backing for Kerry is almost as strong.
Nine out of 10 black adults surveyed believed the Iraq war was not worth the cost in lives or money, and the same proportion believed the country is headed in the wrong direction.
Blacks constituted 10 percent of the electorate in 2000. Bush has sporadically sought to shore up his standing with the group through public appearances. On July 1, he staged an elaborate ceremony in the East Room to mark former President Johnson's signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The BET/CBS poll showed Bush's image still suffers among black voters for the 2000 election recount in Florida. More than four in five blacks believe Bush did not legitimately win the election, and two-thirds think deliberate attempts were made to prevent black voters' ballots from being counted, the survey found.
A Republican state lawmaker in Michigan stoked those resentments this month when he said the GOP would fare poorly in this year's elections if it failed to "suppress the Detroit vote."
State Rep. John Pappageorge, of Troy, Mich., said this week he had used "a bad choice of words" but said his remark shouldn't be construed as racist. He apologized "if I have given offense in any way to my colleagues in Detroit or anywhere."
Kerry, the Massachusetts senator, addressed the Urban League on Thursday. His spokesman said Bush has a "failing record on African-American opportunity."
"Simply giving a speech will not erase the fact that George Bush has pursued policies that have failed to provide economic opportunity to all Americans and have negatively impacted African-Americans," Kerry campaign spokesman Phil Singer said.