PHILADELPHIA -- John F. Kerry yesterday told a national gathering of black leaders and voters that President Bush was ignoring ''genocide" in Sudan and the AIDS pandemic, which Kerry called ''the greatest moral crisis of our time."
Kerry, the Democrats' presumptive presidential nominee, also charged that his Republican rival, who skipped the NAACP convention, ''really seems to have a problem with the truth."
In his NAACP appearance and in a speech at a nearby suburban home, Kerry portrayed Bush as having neglected the needs of downtrodden Americans and having overextended US troops in Iraq in a way that hinders US ability to intervene in such global hot spots as Sudan. Kerry also took aim at Bush's own identification as a born-again Christian, quoting a passage from the Bible that says ''faith without works is dead."
Kerry and Bush have been locked in a war of words over ''values" since the July Fourth weekend, when Kerry took a bus tour through the Midwest and said he shared the ''conservative values" of many families there, including a personal belief that life begins at conception. Kerry has launched a campaign in recent days to woo African-American voters, a largely Democratic voting group, but one that often adheres to conservative social values.
The Massachusetts senator pointedly criticized Bush administration policy toward Africa.
On a day when United Nations officials estimated that hundreds of thousands of Sudanese may die in coming weeks because of lack of medical supplies, Kerry called for the United States, with the UN, to lead an ''international humanitarian intervention" in Sudan's war-torn region of Darfur, where Arab militias have been killing and displacing villagers, driving some into neighboring Chad.
''This administration must stop equivocating. Those government-sponsored atrocities should be called by their rightful name -- genocide," Kerry said to cheers. ''That is a lesson of Rwanda. That is a lesson of World War II. That is a lesson of time."
Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said yesterday that Bush has been calling for an end to violence in Sudan, recently sent Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to that country, and has been working with African nations and UN members to halt the bloodshed.
''John Kerry, meanwhile, is making his typical political attacks," Schmidt said.
Kerry also argued that Bush has not acted aggressively enough to fight AIDS in Africa and worldwide. Bush has announced a $15 billion program to prevent infection and treat patients in selected countries; Kerry yesterday pledged to double that amount, to $30 billion, and extend the initiative to more nations.
''Fighting AIDS is the greatest moral obligation of our time: How can we possibly see the suffering of so many and just turn aside and do too little?" Kerry said. ''And if we don't help, who will?"
Kerry, who has been criticized by some black leaders for not energetically courting their base, hit on an array of hot-button issues before 2,500 people in the NAACP audience, from racial profiling to economically segregated public schools.
He drew loud applause by recalling the 2000 presidential vote in Florida, where a number of African-American voters protested that that their names were apparently struck from the rolls or were hindered in their voting by malfunctioning ballot machines.
''Don't tell us that in the strongest democracy on Earth that a million disenfranchised African-Americans and the most tainted election in American history is the best that we can do," Kerry said.
Attracting the African-American vote is a high priority for the Kerry campaign, particularly in such possible Southern swing states as Florida, Louisiana, and Arkansas, where the Democrats hope to build a coalition of moderates, working- and middle-class voters, as well as Catholics and Jews. At the same time, Kerry has been careful not to lecture blacks about values; in recent weeks, entertainer Bill Cosby has drawn some rebukes for criticizing black parents over their child-rearing skills and black youth for disdaining education.
Kerry opened his remarks to the NAACP by mocking Bush's decision to skip the gathering, playfully teasing the crowd about ''having trouble getting some speakers," and then taking aim at the White House's statement that the president had a scheduling conflict. Bush is the first sitting president in 80 years not to attend at least one national conference of the NAACP.
''As a campaigner, I know something about scheduling conflicts and hostile environments. But you know what? When you're president of the United States, you can pretty much say where you want to be and when," Kerry said to laughter and applause.
''When you're president, you need to talk to all the people -- and that's exactly what I intend to do. I will be a president who is truly a uniter, not one who seeks to divide our nation by race, or riches or by any other label," Kerry said.
During the speech, Kerry also sharply challenged the president's argument that the Democrats' ticket, which includes vice presidential nominee John Edwards, would raise taxes for most Americans.
''This president just really seems to have a problem with the truth. He's talking about John and me going out, raising taxes on working people. I don't know if he knows who working people really are. Working people are not the top one and a half percent of Americans, because 98 percent of America will get a tax cut under my plan," Kerry said.
Nicolle Devenish, a spokeswoman for the Bush campaign, said she was struck by the ''intensely personal nature" of Kerry's attacks on the president.
''When you flail so wildly, when you lump mistruths about the president's accomplishments and misplaced anger about the 2000 election, it's obviously tied to Kerry's increasing discomfort with our focus on the differences between him and the president," Devenish said.
Some rank-and-file members of the NAACP insisted yesterday that despite their leadership's harsh criticism of Bush, he would have been given a fair hearing here.
''If a man is willing to say 'bring it on' in terms of the Iraq war, if he considers himself to be a wartime president, if he considers him to be a fearless leader, then he shouldn't be afraid to be on our stage," said Theresa A. Dear, president of the DuPage County branch of the NAACP in Illinois.
Shortly afterward, on his campaign plane to Philadelphia, Kerry refused to give the target length or themes of his convention speech. He said that he wrote by longhand, then used scissors and paste to rearrange his paragraphs on paper. ''I'll have somebody type it up, print it out, then play with it, look at it, sleep on it, wake up the next day, and see how [expletive] it is," Kerry said, dead-panning. ''Excuse me. Wrong word. See how bad it is."
Pleading with a reporter that he didn't want to talk politics, Kerry, an avid bicyclist, predicted that Lance Armstrong would soon come on strong at the Tour de France. Asked to choose a fantasy sporting experience for himself, he said there were too many to pick one.
''What kid hasn't fantasized pitching in -- some game," he said.
The longtime Red Sox fan was asked: What about hitting one over the Green Monster at Fenway? ''No, I don't fantasize about that," Kerry said.
He traveled to Charleston, W.Va., last night for a rally and fund-raiser, where he was expected to net over $700,000.
Patrick Healy can be reached at email@example.com.