In his speech at the NAACP national convention Wednesday, presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney vowed to do better than President Obama for African-Americans.
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HOUSTON -- Although President Obama swept into the White House with the overwhelming support of black voters, Mitt Romney appeared before the NAACP on Wednesday with a bold claim: "If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him."
His assertion was met with cackles and boos -- as well as tepid applause -- and was emblematic of his entire speech, in which he tried to appeal to blacks while offering tough policy prescriptions that are unpopular with them.
In a roughly 25-minute speech at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's annual convention here, Mr. Romney promised to fight teachers' unions and repeal the President's health-care law.
When he said he would "eliminate every nonessential, expensive program I can find, that includes Obama-care," the crowd booed -- the first of several instances of vocal disagreement.
Mr. Romney deviated slightly from his prepared remarks as he tried to explain his position.
His speech was blunt and delivered with little of the rhetorical flourish or soaring language that is typical when celebrating the history of the civil rights movement.
Instead the presumptive Republican nominee came straight to the point, acknowledging the traditional lack of support among blacks for a candidate from his party.
But even as he accepted that reality, he appeared determined to deliver a tough critique of Mr. Obama's economic policies in the face of an unreceptive crowd. He suggested that their support for Mr. Obama was misplaced, and that his policies as president would make their lives better.
"If I did not believe that my policies and my leadership would help families of color -- and families of any color -- more than the policies and leadership of President Obama, I would not be running for president," he said.
Later, in an interview with Neil Cavuto on Fox News, Mr. Romney said that the booing was not a surprise. "We expected that, of course," he said. "But, you know, I am going to give the same message to the NAACP that I give across the country, which is that Obamacare is killing jobs."
He added, "I expect to get African-American votes."
Although Mr. Obama, the country's first black president, won 95 percent of the black vote in 2008 according to exit polls, Mr. Romney is not ceding any ground in what is expected to be a close election in November. The black vote, which is still overwhelmingly in Mr. Obama's column, could prove crucial in swing states like North Carolina and Virginia.
In May, Mr. Romney hired consultant Tara Wall to help with outreach to black voters, and he visited an inner-city charter school in West Philadelphia, where he was heckled. But his appearance at the NAACP was his most direct wooing of black voters this campaign.
Mr. Romney pointed to economic sufferings of the group, as he has when speaking to Hispanic voters, another critical voting bloc that he may have trouble winning over.
"The unemployment rate, the duration of unemployment, average income, median family wealth are all worse in the black community," he said.
Many in the audience gave Mr. Romney credit for speaking to the group but said they were frustrated with certain aspects of his speech.
"I give him thumbs up for being courageous," said William Braxton, 59, of Charles County, Maryland. But Mr. Braxton said he took issue with Mr. Romney's assertion that he would be a better president for blacks.
"I was shocked," he said. "Never, ever have I heard him say anything about how he would help the poor or underprivileged, let alone the black community. Maybe his view is that he could tell us what we want to hear, and we're supposed to swallow it."
Donna Payne, 48, of Washington, at the convention as a representative of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, said Mr. Romney "did the best he could."
"To say he would repeal Obama's health-care plan is absolutely a joke," she said. "I can't believe he had the nerve to even bring up repealing the plan in the middle of speaking to an audience that fought hard for the health-care plan and for coverage. It's a total misread of who you're talking to."
In recent national polls, Mr. Obama overwhelmingly leads Mr. Romney among black voters, many of whom are suspicious of Mr. Romney's record on civil rights and diversity, especially when he was the governor of Massachusetts. Upon taking office, for instance, he eliminated the state's Office of Affirmative Action.
Mr. Obama was invited to address the group, but he cited a scheduling conflict. Vice President Joe Biden will speak at the convention on Thursday.