Bush uses civil rights speech to win black vote

President George Bush made an astonishingly open pitch for the black vote yesterday, using a speech to a leading civil rights organisation to urge African-Americans not to back the Democrats automatically, but to first consider what Republicans have to offer.

President George Bush made an astonishingly open pitch for the black vote yesterday, using a speech to a leading civil rights organisation to urge African-Americans not to back the Democrats automatically, but to first consider what Republicans have to offer.

"I'm here to ask for your vote," Mr Bush bluntly told his audience at the National Urban League. "Take a look at our agenda. Ask yourselves: does the Democratic party take African-American voters for granted? How can the African-American community gain leverage, if Democrats are never forced to compete for its vote?"

The address, to the league's annual conference in Detroit, was Mr Bush at his most effective; folksy and humorous as he tried to tap into the black community's anxieties about the breakdown of the family, crime, drugs and the shortcomings of the education system, pouring scorn on the "tired" remedies of the Democrats.

A born-again Christian who rarely misses a chance to display his faith, the President also sought to show he was more in tune with the black community's style of religion than his opponent John Kerry, a reserved Catholic.

Mr Bush's speech, on the day after Mr Kerry addressed the league, came as two new polls, conducted by the Los Angeles Times and CNN/ USA Today, both showed him trailing the Massachusetts senator in the run-up to the Democratic convention in Boston next week.

Though the margins of 1 or 2 per cent are dead heats in statistical terms, they are in line with a host of recent polls showing Mr Kerry narrowly ahead. That lead is likely to grow by a few points in the next few days thanks to the convention "bounce" enjoyed by any major party candidate.

However artful, Mr Bush's plea yesterday almost certainly fell on deaf ears. Even by the standards of Republican leaders, his relations with the black community are rocky. Last week he became the first President to decline to address the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) since Warren Harding in the 1920s, saying his relations with the country's oldest and most prestigious civil rights group were "non-existent". As he wryly remarked, referring to the emblems of the two major parties: "Blacks are gagging on the donkey but they are not yet ready to swallow the elephant." The line won laughter and applause from an audience that some feared might greet the President with boos.

The fact, however, is that Al Gore, his former opponent, won 90 per cent of the black vote in in 2000. This time, Democrats aim to do even better, despite charges that Mr Kerry has done exactly as Mr Bush said, and taken the black vote for granted. The White House calculates even a tiny inroad into a traditionally hostile segment of the electorate could have a very large impact on 2 November, if the race is as close as the polls now suggest.

Meanwhile, Mr Kerry, who yesterday embarked on a national tour, was boosted by an endorsement from his most left-wing opponent, Dennis Kucinich. His approval could persuade the radical left not to switch their support to Ralph Nader, who Democrats fear could siphon off votes just as he did four years ago, almost certainly costing Al Gore the election.

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