WASHINGTON — Barack Obama and John McCain vie for African-American votes this week with appearances before the NAACP convention in Cincinnati, a stop with potential opportunities and pitfalls for both candidates.
Obama is to speak Monday night. On the surface, the venerable civil rights organization's 99th convention should be a love fest between the African-American attendees and the first African-American with a real chance of being elected president.
But last week's crude comments by the Rev. Jesse Jackson about Obama "talking down" to African-Americans brought to light concerns among some civil rights activists and African-American academics about Obama.
Some have taken quiet umbrage at Obama's proposal to expand President Bush's faith-based initiative and his comments about the moral responsibilities of African-American fathers, saying his remarks are designed more to woo and soothe white voters than to address issues impacting the African-American community.
"I think the public reception at the NAACP will be very warm, but I think behind closed doors there will be some frank give and take, something short of contentious, but sharp give and take," said Michael Dawson, a University of Chicago political scientist who specializes in African-American politics.
Alvin Tillery, a political science professor at Rutgers University, said that old-guard civil rights activists won't complain publicly about Obama's approach "because they don't want to alienate a community that wants Obama to be president."
"But they are grumbling," Tillery said. "There are a number of people who are disgruntled with his style of politics — a neo-Southern strategy: Keep black folks at a distance and keep white folks comfortable."
Obama campaign officials say that assertion is flat wrong. They say the Illinois senator has not only spoken about the responsibilities of African-American fathers, but also about important African-American issues like inequality in the criminal justice system and the need for a renewed federal commitment to an urban agenda.
Obama is expected to talk about how the nation's economic crunch is affecting African-Americans, according to Candice Tolliver, a campaign spokeswoman.
"He'll talk about what some folks feel is the next civil rights frontier - economics," Tolliver said. "He'll tell how organizations like the NAACP can be partners in helping families through times like this. If you look at the economy, from credit cards to bankruptcy to unemployment, it's African-Americans who are disproportionately impacted in all the categories."
Bruce Ransom, a political science professor at South Carolina's Clemson University, said Obama's speech will keep Obama on the tightrope he's carefully walked throughout the campaign — reaching out to African-Americans without alienating whites.
"To be elected, he's talking about a multiracial campaign and not making appeals linked to a black agenda," Ransom said. "That would work against him and he would be identified as the black candidate."
Recent polls indicate that race could be a factor in the general election. A poll by the Pew Research Center released last week found that 36 percent of white voters thought the nation has "gone too far in pushing equal rights," while 22 percent thought the growing variety of ethnic and racial groups is "bad for the country."
As a result, the survey found, "white voters who hold racially conservative views are more likely to support McCain."
One-third of all voters say the candidates' race will be a factor in their vote, with 48 percent of blacks saying it will be an important factor and 20 percent saying it will be the single most important factor.
Overall, McCain led Obama 51-to-36 percent among those who say race will not matter, while Obama led McCain 48-to-42 percent among those who consider race an important factor.
McCain's appearance at the NAACP convention Wednesday fits into his effort to reach out to groups that aren't traditionally courted by Republican presidential candidates. Opportunity and education will be the theme of his remarks, according to Brian Rogers, a McCain campaign spokesman.
"Sen. McCain reaches out to all voters," Rogers said. "It's not just lip service. He actually goes, makes his case, not only to tell about his vision, but to hear from them."
McCain has spoken about the Bush administration's failures in dealing with New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, commemorated the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., by attending an event outside Memphis' Lorraine Motel - where King was shot - and admitted he was wrong in voting against a federal holiday for King.
He also has toured economically distressed areas, including southwest Alabama's rural poor Black Belt.
McCain's efforts aren't expected to win over many African-American voters, who are mostly Democrats, especially when they can vote for an African-American presidential candidate.
"Obama is going to get the highest percentage of the black vote of any presidential candidate in history," predicted David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank in Washington that studies African-American issues. "What McCain will be in the African-American community is 'Who?'"
Still, McCain is likely to get kudos from conventioneers for showing up. President Bush attended only two NAACP conventions - once as a candidate in 2000 and once as president in 2006.
McCain's outreach efforts may not result in more African-American votes, but it may benefit him with other voting groups, according to the University of Chicago's Dawson.
"There are independents, moderate Republicans and some Democrats who are attracted to Sen. McCain overall but disenchanted with Republican politics that they might view as narrow, divisive, un-inclusive or mean-spirited," he said. "This could help him show that he's different."
(David Lightman contributed to this report.)
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