Presidential Candidates to Address NAACP

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Democratic presidential candidates will address the NAACP annual convention in Detroit. They attend because they don't want to be in the position of explaining their absence, or somehow suggest that black voters can be taken for granted. The NAACP cannot endorse a candidate.


The NAACP wraps up its annual convention in Detroit today with a forum featuring candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. The convention comes at a moment of crisis for this renowned civil rights group. Its last president left after a dispute with the board and financial problems forced the group to lay off more than a third of its staff.

NPR News analyst Juan Williams joins us now to talk about the politics, race and the NAACP. Good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Juan, given all of its recent struggles, is the NAACP still a political powerhouse, really, in determining whom black voters will support?

WILLIAMS: Well, Renee, if you look at recent presidential election results in which black voters overwhelmingly voted for the Democratic ticket, you'd have to conclude that the NAACP is in line with mainstream black political sentiments in this country. Only nine percent of black voters went with the Republicans in 2000, and that was followed by an 11 percent vote for Republicans in 2004.

I think the harder question is whether the NAACP has any influence in shaping those attitudes. Critics say the group has respect based on its history but is not relevant to current racial issues. Ongoing disputes over the organization's direction and the declining financial support it's receiving are contributing to that point of view.

MONTAGNE: Talk to us about the role that the NAACP played over the last two presidential campaigns.

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, the NAACP has made a point of opposing President Bush, his attempts to build support in the black community, going back to that 2000 campaign. NAACP Chairman Julian Bond had been cutting in his criticism of the administration, suggesting that Republicans have been unthinking even -here I'm quoting - "canine" in showing loyalty to this president. That may have led to the IRS during the Bush administration questioning the NAACP's tax-exempt status because of all that high-profile political talk. The IRS eventually ruled the NAACP can keep its tax-exempt status, but it wasn't until last year, six years into his presidency, that President Bush spoke at an NAACP convention.

He was respectfully received, if you will recall. But it's telling that this year only one GOP candidate, Representative Tom Tancredo, not exactly a frontrunner, has said he may attend today's presidential candidate forum. Otherwise, today you will see only Democrats on the stage.

MONTAGNE: And why do the Democratic candidates feel the need to show up in the sense that - is the NAACP really likely to influence the outcome of the primary?

WILLIAMS: Well, no. It's a defensive position, according to several Democratic Party strategists. The Democrat candidates don't want to be in a position of having to explain their absence today or have it said that they have taken the black vote for granted. Another factor is the presence of a strong black candidate, of course, Senator Barack Obama. He's closely battling Senator Hillary Clinton for black votes in the primary. Also, former Senator John Edwards has made poverty the central theme of his campaign. That's a theme likely to generate strong interest in black America where the poverty rate is 25 percent as compared to eight percent in white America.

In many ways, Senator Obama, who has, you know, has had his critics among old line black politicians and civil rights activists, wants to use the convention to improve his relationships and emphasize to black voters that he is the black candidate in the race.

MONTAGNE: Looking ahead briefly to the 2008 election, what role do you expect the NAACP to play?

WILLIAMS: Well, they can't endorse a candidate, obviously, as a tax-exempt group, Renee. The NAACP's strongest play will be in sort of using their brand name identity to get media attention and rally black voter turnout for an eventual Democratic candidate.

MONTAGNE: NPR News analyst Juan Williams. Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: Good to hear you. You're welcome, Renee.

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