Mitt Romney offered a direct appeal to African-American voters on Wednesday, arguing in a speech at the NAACP's annual meeting that the black community has been hardest hit by the bad economy and that if elected, he'll seek to improve the quality of life for all Americans, regardless of color.
"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 said.
The crowd's reception to the speech was mixed—with Romney's discussion of his desire to repeal "Obamacare" receiving sustained boos.
Romney acknowledged "barriers" still exist for black Americans even after Barack Obama became the nation's first black president. He argued the struggling economy has only enhanced those "challenges" and "old inequities."
"If equal opportunity in America were an accomplished fact, then a chronically bad economy would be equally bad for everyone," Romney said. "Instead, it's worse for African-Americans in almost every way."
At 14.4 percent, unemployment among black Americans is much higher than the 8.2 percent national average, while the average income and median family income for African-Americans is much lower, Romney noted.
While Romney does not expect to win the black vote, the Republican candidate's National Association for the Advancement of Colored People speech was aimed at showing he's at least trying. As he regularly does on the campaign trail, Romney cited his experience as governor of Massachusetts to prove he hasn't led by "just talking to Republicans" and that he'll be an inclusive president.
"We have to make our case to every voter. We don't count anybody out, and we sure don't make a habit of presuming anyone's support. Support is asked for and earned—and that's why I'm here today," Romney said.
If elected, he added, "we will know each other."
He dismissed as "nonsense" Democratic charges that a Romney presidency would only help the rich. "The president wants to make this a campaign about blaming the rich," Romney said. "I want to make this a campaign about helping the middle class."
If he didn't believe his policies would help "families of color" and all Americans more than Obama's, Romney said, "I would not be running for president."
Romney also appealed to the NAACP audience by touting his proposal to increase school choice. The presumptive GOP nominee has repeatedly described education as the "civil rights issue of our era," and on Wednesday, he argued that "mediocre schools" are setting up kids for "failure." In a dig at Obama, he argued that candidates "can't have it both ways" by arguing they'll protect kids while also protecting the interests of teachers unions.
"If equal opportunity in America were an accomplished fact, black families could send their sons and daughters to public schools that truly offer the hope of a better life," Romney said. "Instead, for generations, the African-American community has been waiting and waiting for that promise to be kept. Today, black children are 17 percent of students nationwide—but they are 42 percent of the students in our worst-performing schools."
Romney also briefly touched on gay marriage—an issue that has divided the black community—pledging that he would work to "defend traditional marriage." (The NAACP passed a resolution backing marriage equality in May.)
While the Republican candidate received polite applause throughout most of the speech, Romney received a few boos—including when he repeated his pledge to repeal Obama's health care law. As the audience jeered the health care line, Romney paused and smiled before continuing on.
But Romney emphasized that if elected, his focus would be almost exclusively on job creation. "If I am president, job one for me will be creating jobs. I have no hidden agenda. If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him," Romney declared, as a few audience members booed.
As his campaign readily acknowledges, Romney faces an uphill battle in appealing to black voters. The latest Quinnipiac poll found Obama leads Romney 92 percent to 2 percent among African-Americans.
But Romney cast himself as someone who is still willing to reach out—even to those who don't agree with him. Closing his speech, the former Massachusetts governor spoke about his father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, a supporter of the civil rights movement during the 1960s. Romney called his father's leadership "an example" in his own life.
"It wasn't just that my dad helped write the civil rights provision for the Michigan Constitution, though he did. It wasn't just that he helped create Michigan's first civil rights commission, or that as governor he marched for civil rights in Detroit—though he did those things, too," Romney said. "It was the kind of man he was, and the way he dealt with every person, black or white. He was a man of the fairest instincts, and a man of faith who knew that every person was a child of God."