by Alan Fisher
Mitt Romney says he knew he was going to be booed. He expected it.
Yet when it happened, he seemed slightly taken aback, a half smile fixed on his face.
He had accepted the invitation to address the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People’s annual convention, held this year in Houston, Texas. It is tradition the organisation, the oldest civil rights movement in the US, issues a welcome to the presidential candidates every four years.
Romney knew this was not exactly home turf. Most of the audience was black, and most African Americans overwhelmingly backed the historic election of Barack Obama.
He strode out, 15 minutes late, praised the music and told the audience in the hall, which was around 4000 people short of the 5000 capacity, that he was an inclusive politician.
Drawing on his time as governor of the traditional Democrat stronghold of Massachusetts, he said: "Maybe you’ve wondered how any Republican ever becomes governor of Massachusetts in the first place.
Well, in a state with 11 per cent Republican registration, you don't get there by just talking to Republicans. 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."
He then moved on to his economic message. This is where Romney feels most comfortable. With black unemployment running well above the national average of 8.2 per cent, there were many people keen to hear what he had to say.
There was a smattering of applause for some of his ideas, but then he insisted the Affordable Health Care act threatened jobs and that would have to go. It is President Obama’s signature legislation, the law dubbed Obamacare by his opponents.
It started almost as a muffled shout but soon the boos rumbled around the hall. If the Republican candidate really knew that was the reaction he’d get, then he almost certainly knew that was the phrase that would cause it. He departed from his prepared text to offer an explanation, a justification, but by then he’d lost the crowd on the point he was trying to make.
He spoke about education and promised to continue to talk to the NAACP if elected. This received polite applause but then, moving towards the end of his speech he told the audience: "If you want a president who will make things better in the African American community, you are looking at him". If this was an appeal for support, it was met again with a round of boos. Defiantly almost, the candidate added "You take a look".
As he left the stage, people in the hall were quick to give their verdict and most of it was negative. They did give him credit for turning up but one woman told me, "He simply doesn’t understand the concerns of the black voters".
One smartly dressed young man, who said he arrived early to make sure he got a good seat and obviously expecting a larger crowd told me: "I think he has something to say on the economy, but there’s not enough there to make me think of voting for him". One older man’s views were definitive, calling Mitt Romney "a liar".
The Republican candidate quoted Martin Luther King Junior, author GK Chesterton and even a former head of the NAACP during his speech, but he also invoked the memory of his father George Romney. His father ran for president in 1968, failed to win the Republican nomination, but stood with the civil rights leaders of the time.
This speech may have been aimed at the black community but it was also for independents outside this hall who have yet to make up their mind. This was to show the former governor is open, inclusive and responsible.
Yet Mitt Romney knows when people go to the polls, the African American community will again overwhelmingly support Barack Obama. He can expect that.
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|Liaquat Ali Khan|