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Bush again skips NAACP convention but plans outreach

WASHINGTON—President Bush is skipping this week's annual NAACP convention for the fifth straight year, but that isn't preventing the White House and Republican Party from waging a drive to woo African-American voters.

The outreach effort, which began shortly after Bush's re-election, will be on display Thursday as the president addresses about 3,200 people at the Indiana Black Expo Summer Celebration luncheon in Indianapolis and Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman speaks at the NAACP convention in Milwaukee.

In Indianapolis, Bush will tout his "ownership society" theme, noting gains that African-Americans have made in homeownership and small business on his watch. He'll also cite progress that African-American students have made under his education policies and highlight the billions of dollars in aid that he pledged to struggling African nations by 2010 at last week's G-8 summit.

Mehlman will speak to the NAACP about how the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln lost its way with African-American voters over the years and how determined the party is to get them back, Republican National Committee officials said.

"We can't call ourselves a true majority unless we reach out to African-Americans and make it the party of Lincoln," said Tara Wall, the committee's outreach communications director. "There was a time when African-American support turned Democrat and we didn't do enough to retain it. Now we want to build on the gains we made in the last election."

Bush won votes from 9 percent of African-American voters in 2000 and increased his share to 11 percent in 2004. In some states, he scored larger gains: In Ohio, the state that decided the 2004 election, his support grew by 7 percentage points to 16 percent of the African-American vote.

Political analysts said Republican opposition to abortion and gay marriage, support for school vouchers and Bush's openness about his religious faith persuaded some traditionally Democratic African-American voters to choose him over his challenger, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

"Here's what Ken Mehlman does: He looks at polling data and sees that African-Americans agree with them (Republicans) on school vouchers and gay marriage," said David Bositis, a senior analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington research center on African-American affairs. "He goes to an audience and says, `Look, we have some issues you may find attractive.'"

Hoping to build on Republican momentum, Mehlman has embarked on a campaign to woo African-Americans, adopting the mantra "Give Us a Chance, We'll Give You a Choice." Since becoming committee chairman in January, Mehlman has held about a dozen African-American outreach forums in places such as Largo, Md., Trenton, N.J., and Howard University, a prominent African-American school in Washington. He has four sessions scheduled in coming weeks in Michigan, Florida and the Washington area.

The Republican Party also has stepped up recruitment efforts to produce more African-American candidates for statewide and national offices. The Rev. Keith Butler, an African-American minister, announced his candidacy against Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. Michael Steele, Maryland's lieutenant governor, is contemplating running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Paul Sarbanes, D-Md. Former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann is considering running for governor of Pennsylvania.

Democrats and other opponents of the Bush-Republican Party agenda are skeptical. They contend that Republicans never will be able to lure the majority of African-American voters away from the Democratic Party so long as the Republican Party remains opposed to issues such as affirmative action and fails to specifically address African-American joblessness.

The unemployment rate for African-American men older than 20 was 10.8 percent last month, while the rate for their white counterparts was 3.5 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"Republicans are making inroads, but it's only marginal inroads," said Ronald Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland. "Some of the other issues—the Iraq war, education, tax cuts, unemployment—don't sit well with blacks and will prevent them from gaining more support."

Still, Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's unsuccessful 2000 presidential campaign, said Democrats should take notice.

"Ken Mehlman is serious," she said. "He's on a serious mission since becoming chairman. They have a strategy and they've developed a message."

Bush hopes to get his message across at the Black Expo. His appearance there comes one year to the month after he dropped polite White House talk of "scheduling conflicts" and said he skipped the 2004 NAACP convention in Philadelphia because some of the organization's leaders had made harsh statements about him.

"You've heard the rhetoric and the names they've called me," the president said then.

Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman, said scheduling conflicts would keep Bush from this year's convention. The NAACP said it had invited Bush last January to speak in Milwaukee and received a succinct "No, thank you."

"It's great that he's going to the Black Expo. It's great for him to spend as much time in the African-American community as he can," said Hilary Shelton, the director of the NAACP's Washington bureau. "But he should also come to the NAACP. Our missions and goals are different from the Black Expo, which is primarily about African-American art and culture."

Bush hasn't addressed the NAACP since he was a presidential candidate in 2000. Shelton said the organization planned to invite the president to attend next year's convention in Washington.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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