MILWAUKEE -- The head of the Republican National Committee issued a sweeping apology to the NAACP yesterday for a decades-old practice of writing off the black vote and using racial polarization to win elections.
RNC chairman Ken Mehlman said civil rights legislation pushed by President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, in the 1960s solidified black support for that party for decades and ''we Republicans did not effectively reach out."
''Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization," he added. ''I am here as Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong."
Mehlman was the highest-ranking Republican to address the convention of the oldest and largest US civil rights organization, an annual meeting that President Bush has declined invitations to attend since he took office.
NAACP leaders have been critical of Bush for not appearing before them. While he did speak to the group when he was running for his first term, he has not returned -- something that has not happened with a sitting president in more than 70 years.
Instead, he has reached out to minority audiences less critical of his policies. This year, he accepted an invitation to speak to the Indiana Black Expo, which presented him with a lifetime achievement award for his efforts to help former prisoners integrate into society and for other programs benefiting minorities. The NAACP convention was underway 250 miles away in Wisconsin.
Bush brought a message of opportunity for all Americans, including blacks, to own homes and businesses and to share in the country's prosperity. He claimed credit for narrowing the gap in test scores between black and white elementary school students, according to test results released yesterday by the Education Department.
''I see an America where every citizen owns a stake in the future of our country and where a growing economy creates jobs and opportunity for everyone," Bush said, his voice echoing in Indianapolis's cavernous RCA Dome, where more than 3,000 people packed luncheon tables on the floor below empty stands.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush had already accepted the invitation to speak in Indianapolis when the NAACP asked him to speak at their convention in Milwaukee. McClellan said it is too soon to say whether Bush will attend the convention next year -- an invitation that NAACP chairman Julian Bond announced Sunday, a year in advance.
Appeals by Mehlman and Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean to the NAACP referenced next year's congressional elections and the battle for the White House in 2008, with both party leaders asserting that their parties had the power to make black votes count most.
Dean, who shook up his party with a failed bid for the presidential nomination last year, said, ''We have a Democratic Party that is going to go back to what it used to be by standing up for right and not being afraid and never deserting the people who brought us to the dance."
''Never again will we take another African-American vote for granted," he said.
He warned that the onetime Republican ''Southern strategy" -- using racial issues to appeal to white voters in the once solidly Democratic South -- lives today, but in different forms that play on issues ranging from gay rights to anti-immigrant sentiment.
''The one thing we will never do is divide Americans to win elections," the former Vermont governor said. If the Democratic Party is ever to be whole again, he said, it needs to use the model of the NAACP to become the conscience of the nation.
Dean and Mehlman spoke back-to-back. Mehlman drew some applause but in general got a more tepid response, including a few groans and hoots.
Asked by reporters after he spoke whether Bush's presence at the NAACP event would have given the Republican message more weight, Mehlman made note of Bush's speaking engagement yesterday before the Black Expo.
''It's not simply who you speak to, it's what you speak about," he said.
Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.