HOUSTON - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney drew jeers from black voters Wednesday as he criticized President Barack Obama and pledged to repeal the Democrats' health care overhaul.
Romney told the annual meeting of the NAACP that backing him instead of the Democratic incumbent, who won black voters' overwhelming support in 2008, is in the best interest of their families. He acknowledged his Republican Party doesn't have a perfect record on race relations, but pledged during a sometimes rocky speech that, if elected, he would work with black leaders to put the country back to work.
"I am going to eliminate every non-essential, expensive program that I can find — and that includes Obamacare," Romney said, drawing his first boos of the day.
Romney stood motionless with a reserved expression for 15 seconds before noting a survey from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as support for his position. His rebuttal was greeted with silence.
Indeed, Romney at times found himself adjusting his prepared remarks — with its typically business-oriented language — for his audience and sounded like an instructor explaining policy. Once he noted the slow growth of the GDP, the Gross Domestic Product, only to quickly adjust by adding "the economy."
Romney received polite applause at several points during the speech. But he was interrupted again when he accused Obama of failing to spark a more robust economic recovery.
"I know the president has said he will do those things. But he has not. He cannot. He will not. And his last four years in the White House prove it definitively," Romney said as the crowd's murmurs turned to louder groans.
Finally, he stopped amid loud jeers.
"If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him. You take a look," Romney shot back.
Romney, running against the nation's first black president, isn't going to win the African American vote. But he made a pitch with a major speech that also was aimed at showing independent and swing voters that he's willing to reach out to diverse audiences — and demonstrating that his campaign and the Republican Party he leads are inclusive.
Looking to cut into Obama's support among African Americans, Romney called education the "civil rights issue of our era" and vowed to put blacks back to work. Citing June labor reports, he noted that the 14.4 percent unemployment rate among blacks is much higher than the 8.2 percent national average. Blacks tend to be unemployed longer and black families have a lower median income, Romney said.
All told, it's a difficult sell — 95 percent of blacks backed Obama in 2008. But Romney's speech aside, Republicans and Democrats say he's making a statement just by showing up and speaking to the nation's oldest and largest civil rights group.
"The first thing you need to do is show up, so I ultimately think he's doing the right thing," said Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., one of two black Republicans in Congress. "What he's saying to everyone is that he's (running to become) America's president and not just those folks he thinks he can get votes from right now. I think that's a very important statement."
"You've got to get credit for showing up — for being willing to go—- no question," said Karen Finney, a Democratic consultant who worked in the Clinton White House. "It's more about your actions than it is about what you say."
Obama spoke to the group during the 2008 campaign, as did his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain. Obama doesn't plan to speak this year. Instead, Vice President Joe Biden will address the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on Thursday. Obama is scheduled to address the National Urban League later this month.
Romney rarely speaks to predominantly black audiences at political events. One exception was a May visit to a charter school in Philadelphia, where he cast fixing the education system as a way to help blacks and other minorities.
In framing education as a civil rights issue, Romney is following in George W. Bush's footsteps. At a sweeping address to the NAACP in 2000, Bush, then the Republican presidential nominee, said the education system should "leave no child behind" and labeled the "soft bigotry of low expectations" as part of the problem facing black students.
Romney has a personal history with civil rights issues. His father, George, spoke out against segregation in the 1960s and, as governor of Michigan, toured the state's inner cities as race riots wracked Detroit and other urban areas across the country. He went on to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where he pushed for housing reforms to help blacks.
In recent months, Obama has approached race from an intensely personal perspective. After the shooting of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin in a Florida neighborhood — an act many blacks saw as racially motivated — Obama spoke directly to Martin's parents from the Rose Garden. "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," Obama said.
Diminished enthusiasm for the president following the economic downturn could dampen black turnout, and that could make the difference in Southern states Obama won in 2008, particularly North Carolina and Virginia.