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Bush courts black voters in speech, but response is tepid

President paints GOP as alternative

DETROIT -- President Bush endured a coolly polite reception yesterday at the National Urban League's annual conference, where he asked the mostly black audience to reconsider their loyal support of a Democratic Party that he suggested takes their backing for granted.

Bush made his remarks to the Urban League a week after he refused to accept an invitation from the NAACP, an organization whose leaders his aides have accused of harsh partisanship. The president's snub of the NAACP -- making him the first sitting president in eight decades not to address its convention-- infuriated many blacks, who saw it as more proof that his administration cares little about them.

One day after warmly greeting Bush's Democratic opponent in the presidential race, John F. Kerry, audience members met Bush with tepid applause and sat impassively as the applause lines in his modified stump speech fell flat. Many sat with their arms crossed, staring straight ahead or shaking their heads as the president ran through a list of African-Americans he appointed and pointed to legislation he believes will be of particular benefit to blacks.

An awkward quiet had settled over the hotel ballroom when the Republican president, who got less than 10 percent of the black vote in 2000, stirred things up by telling the audience he wanted them to support his reelection, a request that drew looks of incredulity and murmurs of surprise.

"I know, I know," Bush said. "The Republican Party's got a lot of work to do. I understand that."

That line drew the most enthusiastic applause for any of Bush's remarks, including from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who attended the conference and sat up front for the speech.

"You didn't need to nod your head that hard, Jesse," Bush told him.

Undaunted by skepticism that met his request for support, Bush offered some pointed questions.

"Does the Democratic Party take African-American voters for granted?" he asked. "I know plenty of politicians assume they have your vote. But do they earn it and do they deserve it?"

Bush also asked: "Is it a good thing for the African-American community to be represented by one political party?" And, "Have the traditional solutions of the Democratic Party truly served the African-American community?"

The Kerry campaign released a statement scoffing at the questions Bush raised.

"Does Bush really want the answers to his questions?" the statement read.

Kerry campaign spokesman Phil Singer said: "If President Bush knew the answers to the questions he posed today, he wouldn't have asked them. George Bush did get one thing right in his speech: The Republican Party does have a lot of work to do when it comes to earning the votes of African-Americans, and he hasn't done any of it."

Many in the audience gave Bush points for showing up, and some said they appreciated the questions he raised about black support for Democrats.

"I'm happy that he came," said Ivan Walks, a health care consultant from Washington, D.C. "I thought he made an effort to communicate."

Before Bush spoke, Jackson told a small group of reporters that Bush refuses to meet with other civil rights leaders.

"He's closed his door on the black voters," Jackson said.

Just as Bush began to speak, White House press staff distributed an announcement that "the administration will undertake a unique association with the National Urban League to create an entrepreneurship network."

The network, to be funded in part by the Small Business Administration and the Commerce Department's Minority Business Development Agency, will include centers for business training, counseling, financing, and contracting.

"This administration promotes what I call the ownership society," Bush said. "When people tell me statistics, they say, more people are owning their own small businesses, and a lot of minorities are owning their own small businesses. That's really good news for the future of the country."

The Kerry campaign was quick to release a fact sheet of its own, pointing to cuts in funding for the SBA and minority business development and loan programs. "Although George W. Bush repeatedly speaks about his support for minority-owned small business, the real record shows that Bush has neglected these businesses at every turn," the release stated.

Bush's address to the Urban League was held in a much smaller ballroom than the one Kerry used for his speech on Thursday.

John Cruzat, an Urban League programs vice president from Colorado Springs, Colo., said security was the reason the organization decided to have Bush speak in the smaller room.

Cruzat said he, like others attending the Urban League convention, was happy Bush decided to come. "I don't doubt it took him a lot of courage to come here, especially on the heels of his absence at the NAACP convention," he said. "That made it especially difficult for this audience to connect with him. A lot of us support both groups."

Bush yesterday accepted an invitation to speak next month at a conference of African-American, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American journalists in Washington.

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