WASHINGTON – Three Democratic presidential candidates undertook public acts of contrition in Miami Thursday, seeking redemption from the NAACP (search).
"By not coming Monday, I was wrong. I regret it and I apologize," said Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (search).
"I'm very sorry I wasn't able to be here. Amazing grace, how sweet it is, once was lost, now I am found," said Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich (search).
"I had a long-standing conflict that I could not get out of and I apologize to all of you for not being here, and I thank you for letting me be here," said Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt (search).
The damage control was not lost on the 10,000 members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People who agreed to suspend the rules to allow the candidates five minutes "for the purpose of public apology and explanation."
African-Americans are the Democrats' most reliable voting bloc and 92 percent of black voters chose former Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election.
The NAACP is the nation's largest civil rights organization, and the candidates had been warned when they failed to join the six other hopefuls at the beginning of the week that they had better make amends.
"You now have become persona non grata," NAACP President Kweisi Mfume (search) said Monday. "Your political capital is now the equivalent of Confederate dollars. "
On Thursday, Mfume said the group would accept the apologies, but could not say whether they would translate into support.
"Those candidates really have to go back out across this nation to seek that support. We're glad that they had a change of heart and recognized in many respects why it is so very important not to ignore such a large voting bloc in this nation," he said.
But even patching things up with minorities will not solve all the late candidates' problems. Gephardt is hurting after an embarrassing failure to meet his own fund-raising goals last quarter. He leads polls in Iowa, home of the first caucus, but his labor support there is wavering and he has yet to gain support anywhere else.
Lieberman's campaign is reeling from key staff resignations. A centrist in a liberal nominating race, he trails in both polls and cash.
And winning is almost out of the question for anti-war dark horse Dennis Kucinich, who has been placed at the bottom of the lot with the Rev. Al Sharpton and former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun.
For now, the race is dominated by Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, close rivals in polls, pocketbooks and attacks on President Bush aimed at mobilizing liberal activists.
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards' brand of Bush-bashing includes the suggestion that the president has "trouble with the truth" over Iraq war intelligence. But Edwards has yet to gain in any polls and sources say he knows if he doesn't break out by Labor Day, it may be too late to catch up.
Florida Sen. Bob Graham, former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had hoped that blasting Bush on the war on terror would be his signature issue, even hinting indirectly at impeachment. But he has also stalled in the polls and abruptly shifted gears toward the economy Thursday during an event in New Hampshire in which he unveiled a plan to balance the budget in five years and cut taxes on the middle class.
So far, no clear front-runner has emerged from the Democratic pact, but Democrats can find reason to hope Bush is vulnerable.
The latest FOX News-Opinion Dynamics poll shows the number of people who are ready to re-elect the president has dropped to 42 percent. Falling below 50 percent is always bad news for an incumbent. But in the absence of a clear favorite, the poll shows that so far there has not been a great increase in the number of people ready to vote for any Democrat.
Fox News' Carl Cameron contributed to this report.