McCain courts minority support in Fla.


Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., center, and his wife Cindy greet the crowd after addressing the National Urban League Annual Conference on Friday.

The Associated Press
Published: Friday, August 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, August 2, 2008 at 12:26 a.m.

ORLANDO — With the issue of race hanging over the presidential contest, Republican presidential candidate John McCain appeared Friday before a largely minority audience at the National Urban League, where he drew criticism for his opposition to affirmative action.

McCain made no mention of his campaign’s recent allegations that Barack Obama had raised the “race card” by claiming McCain was trying to scare voters about his Democratic rival.

But McCain, who is drawing less than 10 percent of the black vote in Florida in pre-election polls, drew sharp contrasts between himself and Obama on education, energy and economic policies.

Obama will address the Urban League’s annual convention today.

“If there’s one thing he always delivers, it’s a great speech,” McCain said about Obama. “But I hope you’ll listen carefully, because his ideas are not always as impressive as his rhetoric.”

MMcCain criticized Obama for opposing the use of publicly funded vouchers to send students to private schools, saying Obama was more in step with teachers’ unions than parents.

“If Sen. Obama continues to defer to the teachers unions, instead of committing to real reform, then he should start looking for new slogans,” McCain said.

Obama’s campaign rebutted McCain’s critique, saying the Illinois senator has supported school reforms, including the expansion of charter schools.

Obama’s campaign said McCain has voted against additional funding for early childhood education and had supported the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education.

“With that kind of track record, Sen. McCain should be the last person lecturing Sen. Obama about a commitment to quality education for our nation’s children,” said Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker in a statement.

McCain’s speech was politely received by the Urban League audience of community leaders, activists, business leaders and professionals. But it clearly was a tough crowd. At one point, a dermatologist chided him for not properly covering the recent biopsy on his face.

Crowd members grumbled when McCain asserted the best equal opportunity employer he knew was the U.S. military service.

He was forced to defend his 1983 vote against making Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday.

“I was wrong,” he said, drawing applause from the crowd.

McCain found little support for his opposition to affirmative action programs.

“I think the United States of America has reached the point where we should provide equal economic opportunity for all Americans,” he said, asserting the country has rejected “the quota system.”

“That frankly is something that I don’t think helps anyone,” he said.

Audience members gave McCain credit for coming to the Urban League and defending his positions in an unscripted question-and-answer session that followed his 23-minute speech. He answered more than a dozen questions from the audience.

“He handled himself very well given the crowd and his positions,” said Maurice Coffey, a marketing executive with Procter and Gamble in Cincinnati. “It would have been nice to see him compare and contrast himself less with Obama but focus more on his positions.”

Coffey said McCain “still needs to go to school on affirmative action and the real impact.”

Sonya Springer of Philadelphia also said she was disappointed in McCain’s opposition to affirmative action.

“I do not think this country is in a place where we all have an equal opportunity,” she said. “Hopefully when we get there we won’t need the programs. But we aren’t there yet.”

Springer said she agreed with McCain on his argument that decisions on school funding should be left more in the hands of local leaders rather the state or federal government.

Springer said she was not surprised that the issue of race in the presidential campaign was not raised in Friday’s discussions. She said Urban League members were more focused on issues such as education, housing and economic opportunities.

“Those were the issues we need to address,” she said.

Other audience members were more critical of McCain’s speech.

Dennis Rahim Watson, a motivational speaker from New York who heads a national task force on black male violence and gangs, said McCain spent too much time talking about the potential for charter schools while ignoring the fact that many highly educated African-Americans were being denied a fair opportunity despite their backgrounds.

“What doors are you opening up?” he asked McCain.

McCain said he welcomed Watson’s candor. “I can hear and listen to the passion, caring and concern involved that you have expressed so eloquently,” McCain said. “That’s what the town hall meeting is about.”

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