CINCINNATI (NNPA) — As Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain addressed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's 99th convention Wednesday, he sounded as though he realizes that he will never be more popular than Barack Obama among Black voters.
"I am a candidate that seeks your vote and hopes to earn it," McCain said. "But whether or not I win your support, I need your goodwill and your counsel and should I succeed, I'll need it all the more."
McCain offered thickly spread compliments to the civil rights organization, calling it "an association that means more to me than any other," despite a pattern of eschewing its outreach to candidates during the primaries and opposition to its policies.
In somewhat sheepish tones, McCain began his speech with an apology for snubbing the NAACP's presidential debate last year.
"I hope you'll excuse me for passing on the opportunity at your convention last year and not being here," he said. "As you may recall, I was a bit distracted with dealing with what reporters called an implosion in my campaign, but I'm glad you invited me again." McCain also declined to address the convention in 2000 when he was a presidential candidate.
Later, when questioned about his failure to fill out the NAACP survey, which was sent to all the candidates early last year—and which Sen. Obama filled out and returned last August—McCain faltered before promising that "we look forward to filling out yours."
McCain also refused to complete the NAACP questionnaire in 2000.
"Sen. McCain probably did not respond early on because he had a false sense of security, not realizing the impact Obama would have on us as a country," said Sybil Edwards-McNabb, president of the NAACP Ohio State Conference. "Right now, he realizes the seriousness of his contender. Even thought we're a non-partisan organization, numbers speak for themselves."
The numbers show that the Arizona senator is unlikely to gain much support among African-American voters. A Quinnipiac University national poll of 1,725 likely voters taken July 8-13 shows Barack Obama getting 94 percent of the African-American vote. "It was crucial for him to be here today because the Black population is going to sway this election one way or the other," said Richard Arnold of the NAACP's Allegheny-Isiki Valley Branch in Pennsylvania. "We've seen something we've never seen before in terms of Black voter turnout and that turnout will make a big difference."
Political analyst Jason A. Johnson, a professor at Hiram College in Ohio, said this was a critical move for McCain's campaign if he is to siphon off any of those voters, not only because of his less than stellar reputation with the group but also the past failings of GOP candidates and officials.
"Bob Dole skipped the NAACP convention in 1996 then came back later to apologize. Bush came in 2000 but he didn't show up again for six years. Every single Republican candidate skipped the NAACP candidate's debate during the primaries except Congressman Tim Tancredo," Johnson recalled. "So McCain being here is demonstrating, one, that he is a new kind of Republican or two, that he is desperate because this is not a crowd he's going to move under any circumstances."
But his voting has been typically Republican, with McCain voting with Bush 95 percent of the rime in the last session of Congress, according to Congressional Quarterly. Moreover, in nine of the 11 grading periods McCain has been in the House and Senate, he has earned an F on each NAACP Report Card. He received an I – for incomplete – the other two times he was running for president, but was well on his way to earnings Fs then as well.
McCain's reception by the crowd was tentative, polite, a marked difference to the clamor of the audience that came to see Sen. Obama. On Monday, people pushed, shoved and schemed to get ahead in a line that looped within the corridors. Today, a highway seemed to run through the security scanners.
Inside, when NAACP Board of Directors Chairman Julian Bond introduced the GOP senator, cautious applause began, stuttered and then fell silent.
"Go ahead, please," Bond urged. A polite spate of clapping was the response.
Part of what made the difference was the presentations of the candidates, observers said.
Obama was strong and confident in his oratory and the crowd lapped it up. On the other hand, McCain and Wednesday's audience were like strangers in a sitting room exchanging pleasantries. "There's just no comparison between the charisma of Sen. Obama and the level of conservatism and the reserved presentation of Sen. McCain," Edwards-McNabb, the Ohio delegate, said. "He was very gracious to our delegation and our delegation was very gracious to him."
McCain did receive more spirited support as he delved into discussions about his platform, which he centered on education.
''You know better than I do how different the challenges are today for those who champion the cause of equal opportunity in America. Equal access to public education has been gained. But what is the value of access to a failing school?'' he asked, eliciting cheers. ''After decades of hearing the same big promises from the public education establishment, and seeing the same poor results, it is surely time to shake off old ways and to demand new reforms.''
McCain defended his support of school vouchers - which Obama derided as "old rhetoric" - saying parents deserved the right to send their children to better schools. He also advocated alternative teacher certification, funding online education, reforming No Child Left Behind, more charter schools and financial incentives as a means of boosting teacher performance and academic achievement.
And, in a turnabout, McCain heaped praise on his rival. "Don't tell my opponent I said this, but he is an impressive man in many ways," McCain said, drawing the heartiest applause of the morning. "America today is a world away from the cruel bigotry of [the past] and there is no better evidence of this than the nomination of an African American to be the nomine of his party. Whatever the outcome in November, Sen. Obama has achieved a great thing for himself and his country and I thank him for it."
Attendees say they were pleased by the opportunity to learn more about the candidate. "It wasn't like I came down with the intention of staying; I just happened to be here but I was glad I was here," said Lenora Anderson of Cincinnati. "I have a much better opinion of him now."
Roslyn Brock, vice president of the National Board of Directors, said she was cheered by McCain's pledge—made in a meeting with board members and trustees—that he would work with the NAACP if elected. And she was also pleasantly surprised that McCain allowed a question-and-answer session where he fielded questions on FEMA, appointment of judges and more.
"We were surprised that he wasn't looking for just a staged visit and took un-staged questions," Brock said. "That was very courageous."