The Republican Party chairman on Tuesday defended the GOP's outreach to black voters days after his Democratic counterpart questioned how he could make such an appeal in view of the Bush administration's tepid response to Hurricane Katrina (search).

Ken Mehlman (search) told the Waterbury, Conn.-chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that the "party of Lincoln and the African-American people have an incredible history together."

He dismissed criticism from Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean (search), who questioned how Mehlman could appear before the group after the administration's much-criticized response to the hurricane's devastation.

Hard hit were predominantly poor and black neighborhoods in New Orleans, and thousands of blacks were left stranded at the city's convention center and Superdome for days without basic necessities.

"I'm shocked that he would have the nerve to show his face in front of any African-American organization after the way they treated those people in New Orleans," Dean told the Hartford Courant.

Mehlman answered back in his speech.

"Chairman Dean said it took nerve for me to join you today. The only person with nerve is Howard Dean, who continues to take the African-American vote for granted, who believes he can dictate who you should and should not meet with," said the Republican National Committee chairman.

Mehlman urged the audience to give the Republican Party a chance, especially if they are dissatisfied with the quality of their children's education, housing or retirement options. He touted President Bush's minority hiring record, and the president's support of a plan to triple the money sent to Africa to treat AIDS.

DeNorris Crosby (search), 71, a retired school principal from Monroe, Conn., said issues such as Bush's response to Katrina and the war in Iraq resonate with him and other black voters.

"It's going to take quite an effort to overcome the mistrust most black people have in Bush," said Crosby, a Republican.

Hurricane Katrina highlighted the need to provide America's poor with a greater opportunity to be independent and successful in their lives, Mehlman said.

"I think any time there's a natural disaster, the people who have the least get hurt the most," he said before his speech. "The message that I'm delivering is a message of hope and opportunity."

That caught the attention of Dawn Poindexter (search), 43, a Democrat from Hamden, Conn.

"I like their views, but I'm really used to familiarity," she said. "I like the real basis of his message, the unification piece, coming together for a common interest.