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McCain receives polite but tepid welcome from pro-Obama crowd

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  • John McCain says Barack Obama "an impressive fellow in many ways"
  • McCain points to differences with Obama, but does not criticize him
  • McCain focuses on education reform in address before NAACP
  • Obama heavily favored among black voters
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(CNN) -- Republican presidential hopeful John McCain received a polite but tepid welcome Wednesday as he spoke before a hugely pro-Barack Obama and Democratic crowd at the NAACP convention.

Sen. John McCain is greeted by Julian Bond, the chairman of the NAACP.

Sen. John McCain is greeted by Julian Bond, the chairman of the NAACP.

McCain received the most cheers when opened his address with praise for his rival.

By the end of his speech, which focused on education reform, the crowd was on its feet, giving McCain a respectful standing ovation.

The audience cheered McCain's promise to reform the education system and expand opportunities for minorities.

Gretchen Woods, an undecided voter, said she found McCain's speech "informative and very interesting."

"I had intended not to come, but now that I am here and actually heard it, I think I made the right choice to come and hear it," she said.

"After hearing him today, I may listen to him again."

Venitta Barnett, an NAACP member and Obama supporter, said also was glad McCain spoke before the group.

"I came, and I was open-minded, and I listened, and I was more surprised that I am open to what he was saying. He is not everything that I heard that he was about. He is more people-oriented, so I am open," she said.

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President Bush did not attend an NAACP conference until his sixth year in office because he considered it a partisan organization that worked against him.

McCain apologized for not accepting an invitation to the convention last year, which came at a time when his campaign was on shaky ground, and thanked the group for inviting him again before offering up praise for Obama.

"Don't tell him I said this, but he is an impressive fellow in many ways. He has inspired a great many Americans, some of whom had wrongly believed that a political campaign could hold no purpose or meaning for them," he said in Cincinnati, Ohio. Video Watch McCain offer praise for Obama »

"His success should make Americans, all Americans, proud. Of course, I would prefer his success not continue quite as long as he hopes."

His comments were met by applause and laughs from the crowd.

McCain said that whatever the outcome, "Sen. Obama has achieved a great thing -- for himself and for his country -- and I thank him for it."

McCain couched what in other arenas has been blatant criticism of Obama. He told the crowd that he and Obama have "fundamental differences" when it comes to the economy and "honest differences" about the growth of government.

The senator from Arizona told those at the convention that he seeks their vote and hopes to earn it but that even without their support, he needs their "goodwill and counsel."

Polls suggest that McCain has a lot of ground to gain among black voters.

A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted July 7-14 found that black voters favor Obama over McCain, 89 to 2 percent.

The poll surveyed 1,796 people and has a margin of error of plus or minus 6 percentage points among the minority samples.

Republican candidates historically do not win much of the black vote. President Bush received just 11 percent of the black vote when he ran against John Kerry in 2004.

McCain's relationship with the black community has been rocky at times. He initially voted against the Martin Luther King holiday, and he was booed in Memphis, Tennessee, last spring when he tried to apologize.

But he was the first Republican candidate to visit the site of the famous civil rights march in Selma, Alabama.

McCain's speech before the NAACP was void of any protesters, who have interrupted him multiple times at other events

The White House hopeful focused on education reform and improving education for minorities in his address.

"Education reform has long been a priority of the NAACP, and for good reason. For all the best efforts of teachers and administrators, the worst problems of our public school system are often found in black communities," he said.

"Black and Latino students are among the most likely to drop out of high school. African-Americans are also among the least likely to go on to college. After decades of hearing the same big promises from the public education establishment, and seeing the same poor results, it is surely time to shake off old ways and to demand new reforms. That isn't just my opinion; it is the conviction of parents in poor neighborhoods across this nation who want better lives for their children."

McCain told the crowd that if he becomes president, he will make sure parents are allowed to pick their children's schools -- whether a better public school, a private school or a charter school.

Obama spoke before the crowd Monday and said that although he was "glad to hear" McCain would be speaking about education, he accused McCain of offering "little more than the same tired rhetoric about vouchers."

McCain responded Wednesday: "Over the years, Americans have heard a lot of tired rhetoric about education.

"Parents ask only for schools that are safe, teachers who are competent and diplomas that open doors of opportunity. When a public system fails, repeatedly, to meet these minimal objectives, parents ask only for a choice in the education of their children. ... No entrenched bureaucracy or union should deny parents that choice and children that opportunity," he said.

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McCain's other education proposals include giving bonuses to teachers who work in the most troubled schools, granting spending discretion to principals at public schools, expanding support for online classes and removing restrictions that limit parents' ability to get tutoring for their children.

After his speech, the Obama campaign released a statement criticizing McCain's education proposals point-by-point and saying that Obama offers
a more comprehensive and realistic vision for success.

CNN's Dana Bash contributed to this report.

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