Texas Gov. George W. Bush addressed the 91st annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) where he pledged to make “strong civil rights enforcement a cornerstone of my administration.”
“Our nation is harmed when we let our differences separate us and divide us,” said the Republican presidential candidate. “There is so much that we can do together to advance racial harmony and economic opportunity.”
Bush stressed his theme of expanding upward economic mobility, but did not unveil any new policy initiatives in his remarks to the group today.
“Our nation must make new a commitment to equality and upward mobility for all its citizens,” he said. “ We cannot afford to have an America segregated by class, by race or by aspiration.”
A Different Kind of Republican?
Bush’s speech to the gathering in Baltimore, Md., this afternoon was the latest in a string of campaign appearances before minority organizations — groups that are not considered ‘traditional’ audiences for GOP politicians.
The governor recently addressed the Congress for Racial Equality in New York, the League of United Latin American Citizens national convention in Washington, D.C., and the La Raza conference in San Diego.
“Discrimination is still a reality even when it takes different forms,” Bush asserted. “Strong civil rights enforcement will be a cornerstone of my administration. And I will confront another form of bias: the soft bigotry of lowered expectations.”
Vice President Al Gore, Bush’s Democratic rival, had separate appearances before the same Latino groups, and is scheduled to address the NAACP gathering on Wednesday. But, given that most minorities tend to vote Democratic, it is Bush who has the most to gain by reaching out to them.
“Republicans can make inroads,” said Kweisi Mfume, the group’s president, said on ABCNEWS’ This Week. “But they have to mean it. They can’t just say it.”
“You can pretty much tell when somebody is connecting with you,” he added. “And you can pretty much tell when somebody is sort of giving you the line.”
Bush called for new cooperation between the GOP and groups like the NAACP in his remarks this afternoon.
“I recognize the history of the Republican Party and the NAACP has not been one of regular partnership,” Bush conceded. “While some in our party have avoided the NAACP and while some in the NAACP have avoided my party, I am proud to be here.”
Since the start of his presidential campaign, Bush, who describes himself as “a different kind of Republican,” has tried to bring a more inclusive image to the GOP.
“Reaching out to Hispanics, African Americans and other minority groups, and making real inroads in those communities is, and has always been, important to George Bush,” said Bush campaign spokesman Ray Sullivan. “He recognizes that groups like the NAACP haven’t always had the greatest relationships with Republicans.”
The 1996 GOP nominee, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, drew criticism for pulling out of a scheduled appearance at the NAACP’s annual meeting. Dole said he cancelled because he was afraid the group’s leadership was trying to “set me up” for a hostile reception, and added that he preferred to speak to audiences that he “could relate to.”
And Bush’s own father, then Vice President George Bush, received a chorus of boos when he addressed the group in 1983. The following year, he and President Ronald Reagan declined invitations to speak at the convention.
As a presidential candidate in 1988, however, Vice President Bush was well-received at the annual meeting where he implicitly criticized his own administration’s sensitivity on racial issues.
“For our nation, there is no denying … that racism, despite all the progress, still exists today,” he said. “For my party, there is no escaping the reality that the party of Lincoln has not always carried the mantle of Lincoln.”
‘A Harder Row to Hoe’
According to Mfume, Bush “has a harder row to hoe” with African-American voters than his Democratic opponent this year “because he has been defined by others.”
Mfume was also critical of Bush for not speaking out during the primary season about the controversy surrounding the flying of the Confederate flag over South Carolina’s state capitol. The NAACP led the effort to have the symbol removed. The governor said only that the issue was a matter of states’ rights.
“Leadership in a different sense was needed,” Mfume insisted.
He also added that announcing his intent to name retired Gen. Colin Powell as Secretary of State if elected would be “a rather bold and, I think, smart move,” and could further enhance Bush’s support among African-Americans voters.
But even as Bush was reaching out to the predominantly Democratic voting bloc today, there was a pointed reminder that important differences remain: As the governor was being introduced this afternoon, several audience members raised signs reading, “Abolish the racist death penalty,” and chanted, “Remember Gary Graham!” referring to the controversial case of an African-American man who was convicted of murder and executed in Texas earlier this year. They were escorted out by security.
ABCNEWS’ Kendra Gahagan, John Berman and Carter M. Yang contributed to this report.