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Intriguing Opportunity, But Some Risk For Romney In Speech To NAACP

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's planned speech Wednesday at the NAACP convention in Houston comes at a precarious time for the nation's African-American community.

-- The unemployment rate among blacks is north of 14 percent — more than 5 points higher than the national average.

-- Opponents of GOP-led efforts to require voters in about a dozen states to show identification say the voter ID laws could disproportionately disenfranchise legal black and Latino voters.

-- President Obama's recent endorsement of same-sex marriage and his decision to suspend deportations of young illegal immigrants have roiled some among his African-American base.

That environment raises some intriguing opportunities for Romney, whose campaign mantra has been that Obama, who captured more than 95 percent of the black vote in 2008, has bungled the economic recovery.

There has been no shortage of advice for what Romney should say when he addresses members of the nation's oldest civil rights organization, which is focused this week on issues ranging from the economy and education, to health and voting rights: Talk about your father's civil rights legacy, urged Democratic strategist Karen Finney in a column for The Hill; talk about unequal access to health care and quality education — and ask what Democrats have done for you lately — advised Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.

But raising issues beyond his standard campaign trail economic message, and his recent embrace of education parity as the "civil rights issue of our era," could be risky political business for Romney.

"This is an important appearance for him," says Rogers Smith, a University of Pennsylvania political science professor who has written extensively about race and politics.

Though Romney may have little chance of capturing much of the black vote (Obama's 2008 opponent, Sen. John McCain, got 4 percent), he is going into what promises to be a close election, Smith says, and has to be careful not to tread into areas that could end up motivating a turnout for the incumbent president.

"He has to show that he is concerned," Smith says, "and maybe some will stay home."

Message Reach

Romney senior adviser Tara Wall says the former Massachusetts governor is expected to emphasize educational disparity, which he framed as a civil rights issue during a May meeting with Hispanic leaders.

"This is a dialogue," says Wall, who was hired by the Romney campaign two months ago to assist in outreach to the black community. "There is a commonality with his message and what many African-Americans support — school choice and charters, making sure kids have a fair shot at education."

"Gov. Romney also wants to draw distinctions between the way President Obama addresses the economy and the way he addresses it," Wall says.

That's too "vanilla" for Raynard Jackson, a Washington-based Republican political consultant, who would like to see Romney use his NAACP appearance for more than just "race insurance."

"Politically, I get it," says Jackson, an African-American who supported Obama in 2008,and now favors Romney. "He wants to send a message beyond the black community to white, middle-class women and independent voters that Republicans aren't racist or hostile to the black community."

But Jackson says he believes that Romney could squander an opportunity to speak directly to black voters that he may be able to peel off, particularly black business people, for fear of being perceived as pandering to African-Americans.

He's not the only one who would like to see Romney take chances, but for different ends.

Sociologist and political scientist Theda Skocpol at Harvard University says she'd like to see Romney go beyond a speech strategy of "reassuring white, independent voters that he cares about African-Americans."

Voter ID

For Skocpol, a progressive whose research has included race, politics and the Tea Party, Romney's appearance before a group that has stood for civil rights and voting rights for more than 100 years provides a rare opportunity.

"I'd like to ask Gov. Romney to openly, explicitly and courageously condemn the ongoing campaign sponsored by partisans in his own party to make it difficult for African-Americans, Hispanics, poor people and young people to vote," Skocpol says. "And to call for the Pennsylvania law, and others, to be reversed."

The new Pennsylvania voter ID law requires that voters present a current government or university-issued identification that includes the voter's name and photo. An assessment by the state, which compared voter registration lists and state transportation records showed that more than 758,000 registered Pennsylvania voters, or 9.2 percent of all state voters, don't have the type of identification required by the new law.

Earlier this month, Pennsylvania Republican House Majority Leader Mike Turzai said that the state's new voter ID law is "gonna allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania." The law has been challenged in court by the American Civil Liberties Union.

But in Pennsylvania, Romney supporter Renee Amoore, an African-American businesswoman, lifelong NAACP member, and deputy chairwoman of the state Republican Party, defended the law as necessary to thwart fraud.

"I work the polls, I see voter fraud," says Amoore, founder of a health care, economic development and management consulting group. "People just need to get an ID — and we'll help you get it."

Wall, the Romney adviser, says she has also seen voter fraud "firsthand" and that people should simply "do what's necessary to be able to vote."

While the NAACP is meeting in Texas, a Texas voter ID law is being challenged this week in a special federal court in Washington. Texas is one of the states that — because of a history of voter discrimination — must get approval from the U.S. Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act before enacting changes to its state election law.

Attorney General Eric Holder, who has been moving to block some voter ID laws, including the one in Texas, spoke at the NAACP convention Tuesday. He likened new ballot box restrictions to post-Civil War poll taxes, and said that, in protecting voting rights, "we will not allow political pretexts to disenfranchise American citizens of their most precious right."

History Lesson

When Romney spoke in June to decidedly cool national Hispanic leaders, he softened his tough primary-campaign tone on immigration, but offered little new in the way of policy proposals.

He's expected to follow that template in Houston, where NAACP Chairwoman Roslyn Brock, in an interview on MSNBC, said members are "eagerly waiting to hear his vision for America's future ... particularly for communities of color."

President Obama addressed the convention three years ago on the group's 100th anniversary; Vice President Joe Biden will give a speech on Thursday.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.