Bush to Speak at NAACP Convention

— Reaching out to African-American voters, Texas Gov. George W. Bush will address the 91st annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Monday — and could gain significant support, according to the group’s president.

“Republicans can make inroads,” said Kweisi Mfume, the NAACP president, during an interview on ABCNEWS’ This Week today. “But they have to mean it. They can’t just say it.”

The convention, which kicked off Saturday in Baltimore, Md., is one of many campaign appearances Bush has been making before minority organizations — groups that in the past have not been considered ‘traditional’ Republican audiences.

The candidate addressed the Congress for Racial Equality in New York and the League of United Latin American Citizens national convention in Washington, D.C., early last week. And on Monday, Bush reached out to Latino voters again at the La Raza conference in San Diego.

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 it is the Republican candidate who has the most to gain.

‘The Party of Lincoln’

Bush aides say the governor will focus on racial harmony and economic opportunity in his remarks, and will stress the importance of new cooperation between the “party of Abraham Lincoln” and groups like the NAACP. It’s all part of the more inclusive image Bush, who has described himself as “a different kind of Republican,” is trying to bring to the GOP.

According to Mfume, Bush “has a harder row to hoe” than Gore “because he’s been defined by others. This is his chance to define himself.”

However, Mfume was also critical of Bush for not speaking out during the primary season about South Carolina’s continued use of the Confederate flag above the state capitol, saying “leadership in a different sense was needed” on the matter. Bush had said that the issue was a matter of states’ rights.

Mfume added that naming Colin Powell as Secretary of State — which many have speculated that Bush might do if elected president — would be “a rather bold and I think smart move,” and could further enhance Bush’s support among African-Americans.

And Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP’s board, said today on CNN’s Both Sides that the question of Supreme Court appointments is a crucial one for the organization.

“Who the president is going to be, and who he names to the Supreme Court, is of the utmost importance to us,” said Bond.

Reaching Out

Bush, however, recognizes that he cannot afford to write off African-American votes.

“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,” Bush campaign spokesman Ray Sullivan said. “He recognizes that groups like the NAACP haven’t always the greatest relationships with Republicans.”

The specter of 1996 may also have influenced Bush’s decision. In that election year, Republican nominee Bob Dole drew criticism for pulling out of a scheduled appearance before the NAACP. Dole said he cancelled because he was afraid the group was trying to “set me up” for a hostile reception, and added that he preferred to speak to audiences that he “could relate to.”

Beyond his message of racial tolerance and opportunity for all, Bush is not expected to unveil any new policy initiatives in Monday’s speech. But his very presence at the convention is one way to make sure his “compassionate conservative” message is heard loud and clear.

— ABCNEWS’ Kendra Gahagan and the Associated Press contributed to this report.