Friendly Skepticism Greets Romney At NAACP

Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney addressed the NAACP on Wednesday. Rather than reach for common ground, he touted his opposition to issues the group cares about deeply. Romney drew sustained boos when he called for repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. This morning, Mitt Romney stepped before an audience that overwhelmingly supports President Obama to deliver a critique of the president. The venue was the annual convention of the NAACP in Houston, and Romney received a warm welcome, but portions of his speech brought loud dissent and doubts about whether he had really come in search of African-American votes. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: The chairs on the floor of the massive convention hall were probably two-thirds full for Romney's speech. The vibe was one of friendly skepticism. Attendees were curious about what he might say to try to win their vote. Romney acknowledged right up front that this isn't his typical audience.

MITT ROMNEY: Now with 90 percent of African-Americans who typically vote for Democrats, you may wonder - or some may wonder why a Republican would bother to campaign in the African-American community and to address the NAACP. One reason, of course, is that I hope to represent all Americans, of every race, creed and sexual orientation.

(APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: There were more moments of that kind of polite applause, including when Romney quoted Frederick Douglass, and when he pledged to improve schools. But very soon came blunt criticism of the president.

ROMNEY: My campaign is about helping the people who need help. The course the president has set won't do that. My course will.

GONYEA: He ticked off statistics - 8.2 percent unemployment nationally - but for African-Americans, the number is on the rise and has hit 14.4 percent, with longer periods of joblessness and significantly lower average income.

ROMNEY: The point is that when decades of the same promises keep producing the same failures, then it's reasonable to rethink our approach and consider a new plan.

GONYEA: Romney made no mention at all of a top issue for this group: a Republican push for voter ID laws that the NAACP says are designed to lower African-American turnout. Romney did say his policies are ones they should support.

ROMNEY: And I submit to you this. If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMNEY: You take a look.

GONYEA: Some laughed, some jeered. But the real outburst of negative response came moments later when Romney ticked off the things he'd do as soon as he takes office, including cutting spending.

ROMNEY: And so to do that, I'm going to eliminate every nonessential, expensive program I can find. That includes Obamacare. And I'm going to work to reform and save...

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOING)

GONYEA: For this audience, that was the moment of the speech. Some said Romney attacked the president's health care plan in this setting in front of this audience as a way to appeal to conservative white voters in battleground states. Some, like 55-year-old Willie Hamilton of Omaha, were offended by the use of the term Obamacare, a name coined by critics of the law.

WILLIE HAMILTON: Why is it Obamacare? It's a health care bill. So if he'd have referred to it as a health care bill, I think it would have been better received. I thought it was a slap in the face to Obama by using that as Obamacare.

GONYEA: The NAACP issued a statement calling Romney's policies antithetical to the interest of the African-American community. But Romney surrogate, Florida Lieutenant Governor Jennifer Carroll, who is African-American, says it was right to describe the health care law the way Romney did.

LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR JENNIFER CARROLL: You know what, he says it in every other audience the same way. So why change for this audience? And the audience should appreciate his honesty in delivering the same message he's delivered to any other demographic group. And they have to know where he's coming from.

GONYEA: Tomorrow, there will no doubt be more reaction to Romney's speech when Vice President Joe Biden speaks to the NAACP convention. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Houston.

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