Kerry woos the African-American vote, promising they will be heard

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The Independent US

With his campaign floundering and even the Democratic Party faithful questioning his ability to beat George Bush in November, a more assertive John Kerry offered some red-meat rhetoric to African-American voters, a key constituency, this weekend as he accused his Republican opponents of deliberately seeking to suppress the black vote.

With his campaign floundering and even the Democratic Party faithful questioning his ability to beat George Bush in November, a more assertive John Kerry offered some red-meat rhetoric to African-American voters, a key constituency, this weekend as he accused his Republican opponents of deliberately seeking to suppress the black vote.

Speaking to a gala gathering of the Congressional Black Caucus, Senator Kerry alluded to - but did not spell out - instances of intimidation and deterrence already documented in this campaign season. "We are not going to stand by and allow another million African-American votes to go uncounted in this election," he said. "What they did in Florida in 2000, some say they may be planning to do this year in battleground states all across this country. Well, we are here to let them know that we will fight tooth and nail to make sure that this time, every vote is counted and every vote counts."

The line won Mr Kerry the only standing ovation of his 35-minute speech and went some way towards restoring confidence in a candidate who has not otherwise enthused African-Americans. The black vote is assumed to be solidly Democrat - Al Gore won 90 per cent support in 2000 - but complaints have been growing that the party takes the support for granted and offers little in return.

Polling over the summer suggests Mr Kerry may win only 80 per cent of the black vote - and could suffer a much greater net loss of votes if turnout drops. His speech seemed to be a recognition that, with Mr Bush ahead in the polls and rapidly gaining ground in key battleground states, he needs to court every constituency he can.

After a disastrous August, the Kerry campaign has undergone a marked shift. Rather than allowing Republican attacks - on everything from his service in Vietnam to his voting record in the Senate - to go unanswered, the Massachusetts Senator has begun hitting back and allowing his surrogates to go negative on Mr Bush's own hole-ridden military service record.

That, in turn, reflects a new direction in Mr Kerry's campaign organisation. It was the veteran Democratic Party operative Bob Shrum, an old friend and key campaign adviser, who urged him to ignore the Republican attacks and stay above the fray. Now, however, Mr Shrum's influence has waned and a team of Clinton-era veterans - including a former White House press spokesman, Joe Lockhart, and the outspoken consultants James Carville and Paul Begala - have more sway.

As Mr Kerry's fortunes have diminished, Washington has been abuzz with talk of the "Curse of Shrum" - a reference to Mr Shrum being on each of the Democrats' six unsuccessful presidential election campaigns since 1968 - and on none of the successful ones.

Mr Shrum's biggest mistake this time was arguably his decision to make Mr Kerry's service in Vietnam the centrepiece of July's Democratic National Convention, only to appear stunned and unprepared when the Republicans made Vietnam the focus of their post-convention counter-attacks.

The issue of black voting-rights is a burning one this year, with activists denouncing police visits to the homes of active black voters in Orlando, Florida and a comment by a state representative in Michigan urging Republicans to "suppress the Detroit vote" in November. (Detroit is 83 per cent black.) But it remains to be seen if Mr Kerry's can reinvigorate his support base, or whether his rhetorical jabs will be seen as too little, too late.

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