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Kerry vows to be a uniter in NAACP address

Teams will 'make sure every vote counts' and every vote is counted

Sen. John Kerry addresses the NAACP convention Thursday in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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America Votes 2004: Presidential race
John F. Kerry
Julian Bond

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- Sen. John Kerry promised civil rights leaders Thursday he will be a "uniter," bringing opportunities and justice to those he said have been left out in the cold by the Bush administration.

In a politically significant speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee promised never to seek to divide the nation "by race or riches or by any other label."

He also announced his campaign will have teams of lawyers and observers working on election day to make sure there is no repeat of the 2000 presidential election in Florida, when some African-Americans were inaccurately listed as felons and not allowed to vote, and others claimed they were harassed and prevented from voting.

"We will enforce the law," he vowed. "We're not only going to make sure every vote counts, we're going to make sure that every single vote is counted."

Kerry received virtually a hero's welcome at the convention, which President Bush did not attend. Bush is the first president since the 1930s not to attend the nation's oldest and largest civil rights group.

The White House said he had a scheduling conflict, but Bush also pointed to scathing comments against him from NAACP leadership -- remarks that White House spokesman Scott McClellan termed "hostile." (Bush declines NAACP invitation)

"Some people may have better things to do, but there's no place that I'd rather be right now than right here in Philadelphia with the NAACP," said Kerry to loud applause.

"When you're president you need to talk to all of the people and that's exactly what I intend to do," he said. "The president may be too busy to speak to you now, but I've got news for you: He's going to have plenty of time after November 2nd."

NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, who lashed out at the president during the convention, said Bush "didn't come because we criticized him. But if he didn't go anywhere people criticized him he'd never leave home." (NAACP chairman calls for Bush's ouster)

Even before Kerry entered the packed convention hall, he was cheered. As his entry was announced, the song "We Are Family" blared throughout the room, and conventioneers swarmed the senator from Massachusetts. With a wide grin he shook dozens of hands and pumped his fist in the air as he approached the podium.

He used the event to announce a "Front Porch Tour," in which he and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, will visit with families nationwide.

"We're going to talk with them. And most importantly we're going to listen about the values that matter most to the people of this country -- the values that you live by every single day: family, responsibility, inclusion, opportunity, fairness, faith, and the most revolutionary value of all, that we are all created equal on this earth.

"What better place -- what better place to kick off this tour, than right here in Philadelphia, on the front porch of American democracy. What better neighbors to visit with than the NAACP?"

Kerry praised the civil rights group for fighting to bring fairness and equality to the country, and never flinching from "speaking the truth to power."

Many in Washington seem "blinded" to the struggles of ordinary Americans, he said, citing poverty, violence, inadequate education, and lack of health care.

"Making life better for the working poor is part of my vision for a stronger America. We can do better and we will."

As he has in all recent speeches, Kerry portrayed his campaign as optimistic -- an effort to counter accusations of "pessimism" from the Bush-Cheney campaign.

"Today we have an administration in Washington that looks at the challenges we face here and around the world and you know what they say? 'This is the best we can do'; that 'now is the best economy of our lifetimes.' They have even called us pessimists for speaking the truth to power. Well, I say the most pessimistic thing that you can say or anyone can say is that Americans can't do better than we are doing today."

He accused the Bush administration of sending jobs overseas and contributing to corporate scandals through licensing "a creed of greed."

"This president just really seems to have a problem with the truth," he argued, citing claims by the Bush campaign that Kerry would raise taxes on the working poor. "I don't know if he knows who the working poor really are -- not the top 1.5 percent of Americans. Because 98 percent of America will get a tax cut under my plan."

Referring to his experience as a Vietnam veteran who fought against the war upon his return to the United States, Kerry promised to put "back in place a mighty principle of the United States: that this country never goes to war because it wants to; we only go to war because we have to."

In the wide-ranging address, he brought up AIDS, vowing to commit $30 billion -- twice as much as Bush -- to combat its spread.

He also turned to Sudan, accusing the administration of "equivocating" because it is not using the word "genocide" to describe the mass murders of blacks being carried out by Arab militias in Darfur.

But his central arguments revolved around the "uniting" theme. Adopting a line often used by Edwards during his own bid for the presidency, Kerry said, "We need to come together in the 21st century as one America -- and I intend to lead us to do that."

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