NEW: NAACP audience members say Romney's Obamacare line was mistake
NEW: Another in audience says booing was inappropriate
NEW: Conservatives say unpopular message shows Romney's convictions
His campaign acknowledges a tough time in attracting black voters but urges dialogue
Mitt Romney touted his economic and educational proposals, tailored his message to the predominantly black audience, and beat back an uncomfortable chorus of “boos” in an address Wednesday to the nation’s oldest civil rights organization.
During his speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Republican presidential candidate stressed the need to reduce government spending: “If our goal is jobs, we have to stop spending over a trillion dollars more than we take in every year. And so, to do that, I’m going to eliminate every non-essential, expensive program I can find. That includes ‘Obamacare.’”
That prompted loud boos from the audience that lasted a full 15 seconds.
After waiting that out, Romney responded by referencing a survey that stated that three-fourths of the Chamber of Commerce’s business members said the nation’s health care law make it less likely to hire people.
Scot Esdaile, state president of the Connecticut NAACP who was in the audience, said he was impressed that Romney appeared before the convention but thought the Obamacare line was a mistake.
“We’re not falling for the health care bill is the reason why people don’t have jobs,” he said. “Prior to the health care bill being passed, there were no jobs, and a lot of those jobs were lost under the Republican administration.
“I definitely don’t want to go backwards, and I definitely don’t want to get rid of health care. I think he was totally wrong for stating that in the speech. I think he really messed up by bringing that on the floor.”
The line got the opposite reaction from the right, some of whom has questioned Romney’s conservative convictions.
“We can see a smile break out on Romney’s face, and for good reason. This gives him all sorts of instant credibility on the Right and in the middle,” Ed Morrissey wrote on the conservative blog Hot Air. “The middle will be pleased to see that Romney went to the convention at all, in the face of overt hostility, plus the NAACP audience comes across as a bit immature.
“The Right has doubted Romney’s commitment to repealing ObamaCare at times, but this shows that Romney is willing to repeat that pledge anywhere, even when it’s guaranteed to turn the audience against him.”
In another uncomfortable moment, Romney enumerated five items to restore the imperiled economy, including expanding trade, nurturing skilled workers and restoring economic freedom.
“I know the president will say he’s going to do those things. But he has not. He will not. He cannot. And his last four years, in the White House, prove it definitively. If I’m president, job one for me will be creating jobs,” Romney said.
“I submit to you this: if you want a president who will make things better in the African American community, you are looking at him.”
Both lines prompted separate choruses of boos.
NAACP member Peggy Holmes said she was disappointed by the crowd’s reaction, “because I wasn’t raised that way.”
“If I invite someone to my house, I treat them like a guest. I respect them,” she said.
The Obama campaign reacted swiftly.
Spokeswoman Clo Ewing wrote in a statement: “At the NAACP today, leaders in the African American community recognized the devastating impact Mitt Romney’s policies would have on working families. He’d gut investments in education, energy, and infrastructure, and raise taxes on the middle class even as he gives $5 trillion in tax cuts weighted towards millionaires and billionaires. He’d put insurance companies back in charge, threatening the health of more than 30 million Americans who will gain coverage because of the Affordable Care Act. And he refused to use the opportunity today to finally lay out a plan for improving health care or education in this country.”
“President Obama believes the economy grows from the middle out, and that’s why his plan would extend tax cuts for the middle class, asks the wealthiest to pay their fair share, and makes the critical investments to build an economy that lasts. African Americans can’t afford Romney Economics.”
Romney’s campaign has acknowledged its problem with African American voters: Polls show blacks overwhelmingly prefer Obama – a recent Gallup tracking poll showed just 5% of blacks supporting Romney, compared with 87% for the president.
In 2008, Obama, the first African-American presidential nominee of a major U.S. political party, captured a near-total lock on the black vote: 95% to 4% for Sen. John McCain.
Yet Romney sees an opening given the alarming level of unemployment among African-Americans, which recently rose from 13.6% to 14.4% – just over six points higher than the national jobless rate.
A top NAACP official said that Romney could “surely” capture more black votes – if he offers economic proposals that appeal to the community.
“African-Americans, like every other demographic in our country … demographics vote their economic interests,” NAACP Washington bureau director, and senior vice president for policy and advocacy, Hilary Shelton said. “We want to know that the plan that you have to address the issue of unemployment in our society will also reach us; that we’ll see a tailored plan that will recognize that disparity and show us how you make sure we move the entire country forward, but also eliminate that disparity in the process.”
To be sure, the audience’s displeasure with Romney was scant. During the 25-minute address, the audience was mostly polite – giving their guest light applause at various moments.
Romney opened with a light-hearted joke.
Acknowledging a high profile opponent’s appearance before the group on Thursday, Romney said: “I appreciate the chance to speak first – even before Vice President Biden will get his chance tomorrow. I just hope the Obama campaign doesn’t think you’re playing favorites.”
Romney saw applause as he confronted the political reality he faces with black voters.
“Now with 90% of African Americans, who typically vote for Democrats, you may wonder, or some may wonder, why a Republican would bother to campaign in the African American community and to address the NAACP,” the candidate said. “One reason of course is that I hope to represent all Americans, of every race, creed and sexual orientation. From the poorest to the richest and everyone in between.”
“I believe that if you understood who I truly am in my heart, and if it were possible to fully communicate what I believe is in the real, enduring best interest of African American families, you would vote for me for president.”
Romney confronted criticism of his economic policies.
“Now of course you know, the opposition charges that I and people in my party are running for office to help the rich. Nonsense,” the candidate said. “The rich will do just fine, whether I’m elected or not. The president wants to make this campaign about blaming the rich and I want to make this a campaign about helping the middle class in America.”
He also stood his ground against gay marriage – an issue that has received mixed responses from the African American community.
“As president, I will promote strong families and I will defend traditional marriage,” Romney said.
At another point, the former Massachusetts governor saw warm responses by noting the historic nature of the president’s election.
“If someone had told us in the 1950s or 60s that a black citizen would serve as the forty-fourth president of the United States, we would have been proud and many would have been surprised,” Romney said. “Picturing that day, we might have assumed that the American presidency would be the very last door of opportunity to be opened. Before that came to pass, every other barrier on the path to equal opportunity would surely have to come down.”
“Of course, it hasn’t happened quite that way. Many barriers remain. Old inequities persist. In some ways, the challenges are even more complicated than before. And across America – and even within your own ranks – there are serious, honest debates about the way forward.”
Much of Romney’s speech centered on his policy proposals. On education, Romney touted his record in Massachusetts. He also stressed the need for education reform – offering parents a choice to send their children to charter schools, “which is a great benefit to inner city kids trapped in underperforming schools,” Romney said.
He also made a notable, yet veiled point about the GOP.
“The Republican Party’s record, by the measures you rightly apply, is not perfect. Any party that claims a perfect record doesn’t know history the way you know it. Yet always in both parties there have been men and women of integrity, decency, and humility who have called it justice by its name.”
Analysts took away different views of the speech, depending on their points of view.
Republican strategist and CNN contributor Anna Navarro said Romney’s message was one of sticking to his convictions and expanding the GOP.
I think it does send a very strong message of inclusiveness,” said CNN contributor and Republican strategist Anna Navarro. “It’s not easy to go into a tough crowd and Mitt Romney is showing that he can reach out to a tough crowd. He will go in and say the same thing to different groups even if it’s not popular.”
“So I think even all of those boos are not a bad thing because it shows that he is not pandering….This helps with swing votes, moderates, people that like to see inclusiveness.”
CNN contributor and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile saw it differently.
“Look, Mitt Romney would have gotten booed if he would have given the same speech that he gave to some of his tea party audiences, that supports voter ID and will prevent many Americans to exercise their vote,” Brazile said.
“I think what this audience wanted to hear was job, peace, and freedom and he got a long list of promises without any details of solutions.”
At the end of his address, half the crowd rose and applauded Romney.
Roslyn Brock, chairwoman of the NAACP national board of directors, objected to Romney’s choice of the word “Obamacare,” a buzzword coined by the law’s conservative critics.
“That was a loaded statement and the crowd erupted with displeasure.”
While Obama is skipping the convention, Vice President Joe Biden will address the group on Thursday.
CNN’s Jim Acosta, Matt Hoye and Shawna Shepherd contributed to this report