Analysis: Candidates' Minority Outreach

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain addresses the annual meeting of the NAACP on Wednesday in Cincinnati. His Democratic challenger, Barack Obama, spoke there Monday. Steve Inskeep talks with NPR News Analyst Juan Williams about the candidates and their reaching out to minority voters.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's get some analysis now from NPR's Juan Williams. Juan, good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And on that problematic issue for McCain of immigration, what are his advisors thinking?

WILLIAMS: Well, they're split, Steve. McCain's team has seen some recent shifts, with Steve Schmidt taking over from Rick Davis in terms of a campaign manager's spot. And the previous thinking was less focused on the GOP and the base and its anger at immigration reform. Now you have the focus directed at securing that very base. As a result, you hear Senator McCain talking more about the borders, as you just heard from Scott Horsley. But even so, he's continuing to remind Latino audiences of his advocacy for what he calls, you know, practical and humane steps that would allow for citizenship, that would allow for a U.S. temporary workers' program.

So that's a split that I think is apparent to everyone. But the focus, the emphasis, has shifted for Senator McCain now to securing the base and making sure they know that he wants to put up whatever barriers and take whatever steps are necessary to prevent that continuing influx of illegal immigrants.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about another key group, the NAACP, a civil rights organization representing African-Americans. McCain's going to address their annual meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio, which is something that President Bush often didn't do. Do you think McCain can do better among black voters than President Bush did?

WILLIAMS: Not likely, given that he's running against the first presumptive black nominee for a major party's nomination. But the difference here is that Senator McCain wants to make the case that he is not about so much winning black votes but winning white moderate votes, the swing votes that are going to be key to determining the outcome of the fall election.

He wants to make the case that he will be the president of all Americans, and that a vote for him is not a vote against the black candidate so much as it's a vote for him, the candidate, in terms of his own campaign rhetoric, the candidate of lower taxes, the candidate with more experience in foreign policy.

You'll notice that he didn't attend the NAACP conference last year as a candidate for the GOP nomination, and he didn't participate in a debate on minority issues. But now McCain's goal is to inoculate himself, I think, against charges that he would play racial politics anywhere down the line.

He can say listen, I went not only to the NAACP convention, but campaigned in black communities early on.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the politics of race on the Democratic side. Barack Obama made some statements about irresponsible black fathers. The Reverend Jesse Jackson went after him for it, and Obama had a chance to respond last night before that same group, the NAACP.

WILLIAMS: He sure did. And, you know, Obama went right back at Jackson last -you've even got to remember that last week, Jackson said that Obama deserved to be castrated for talking down to black people when he was calling out the idea that there needed to be more responsible parenting, especially responsible fathers in the black community.

Now what you heard last night was Obama didn't speak directly to Jackson by name, but he did say there've been some out there who say I've been too tough in talking about responsibility. Obama responded by saying to that he's not going to stop talking about responsibility in the black community, and the NAACP audience gave him a very loud and continuing response of applause. And he did say that he wanted to make sure that even as we call for responsible behavior, more responsible behavior in the black community, the government continues to do its job, and again, he got more applause.

So what we see here is, apparently, Senator Obama making a political decision that's in his best interest to continue to deliver that message, and he's not afraid of Jesse Jackson.

INSKEEP: Juan, always good to talk with you.

WILLIAMS: All right, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Juan Williams.

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