Glossing over sharp policy differences with self-deprecating humor, George W. Bush signaled that he felt the principal message of his speech to the NAACP convention yesterday was that he thought enough to show up.
And while there was much disappointment among some members that he offered no new specific proposals and largely avoided the emotional issues that divide them, Bush's audience responded cordially.
Some members said they recognized that through his presence, Bush had opened the door to a new era of mutual respect between Republican candidates and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The Texas governor, the first major Republican presidential hopeful to address the nation's largest and oldest civil rights group since his father did so in 1988, made the most of the distinction in trying to warm the traditionally Democratic crowd.
"I've been looking forward to this, I really have," he said in a tone that suggested he was sharing a joke with the roughly 3,000 conventioneers gathered in Baltimore. "And for those of you who support me - I see a couple here, maybe more than a couple! - I hope you won't change your opinion."
Referring to past snubs by Republican presidential hopefuls, including Bob Dole in 1996, Bush said: "I recognize the history of the Republican Party and NAACP has not been one of regular partnership. But our nation is harmed when we let our differences separate us and divide us.
"So while some in my party have avoided the NAACP, and while some in the NAACP have avoided my party," he added, drawing laughter and applause, "I am proud to be here."
The presumptive Republican nominee said he wanted to demonstrate that, unlike some Republicans, he shared the organization's concern for advancing racial harmony and economic opportunity. He acknowledged that "racism, despite all the progress, still exists today."
"For my party," the Texas governor said, "there is no escaping the reality that the party of Lincoln has not always carried the mantle of Lincoln.
"We're not limited by what we have done or what we have left undone," he added. "We are limited only by what we're willing to do. I am here because I believe there is so much that we can do together."
Yet to an audience that had been eager to hear bold new plans for addressing racism and discrimination, Bush mostly recycled some of his earlier proposals on education, housing and health care. The only new offering in his 20-minute speech was a promise to make "strong civil rights enforcement a cornerstone of my administration."
"I hope he's sincere about that; some Republican presidents have made a mockery of civil rights enforcement," said Gary L. Bledsoe, president of the Texas chapter of the NAACP. "But I heard a lot of whispers around me that people were hoping for more substance."
Even so, many who gathered to hear the Republican candidate recognized he was making an overture more akin to a peace negotiation than a recruitment drive.
Larry and Betty Holloway of Saluda, S.C., said they heard from Bush some sentiments they agreed with and a lot they did not.
"But he had the nerve to come, unlike some other Republican candidates," Larry Holloway said. Betty Holloway added, "He showed he was strong and he was brave."
That assessment may be regarded as a victory of sorts for the Bush camp, which is hoping that their candidate's message of "compassion conservatism" will soften the harsh edges that some voters associate with the party, especially since Republicans took over Congress in 1995.
Bush's speech in Baltimore concluded a round of appearances to black and Hispanic groups during the past two weeks aimed at duplicating his success in Texas at making sharp inroads among minority voters who are traditionally considered part of the Democratic base. The Texas governor repeated yesterday many of the themes that have struck a chord with voters there, such as assuring that every child has the chance to learn and that every family has economic opportunities.
Today he plans to expand on such ideas, with a speech in Detroit in which his campaign says he will propose new initiatives to facilitate adoption and foster care.
As the Republican nominee, Bush could be helped in a tight race against Vice President Al Gore if he succeeds in dampening the turnout of minority voters, who might otherwise vote Democratic. He might also improve his standing with liberal or moderate white voters who applaud his efforts to seek racial tolerance.
Former State Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell III of Baltimore said he thought Bush's lack of specifics might make it easier for African-Americans to support him because he appeared to be open to their ideas. "He has left the door open for those who would like to share policy," said Mitchell, who has supported Republican candidates on occasion. "What he did by appearing here today is say, 'I'm open to your suggestions. Come see me.'"
Before Bush spoke, some members of the NAACP said they hoped he would address such emotional topics as the high rate of executions in Texas, police brutality and the display of the Confederate flag in South Carolina. Four hecklers who were protesting the most recent Texas execution - of Gary Graham, a convicted murder - had to be removed from the hall as Bush was about to speak.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat, held a news conference in advance of Bush's speech to warn NAACP members not to be fooled by Bush's talk of compassion. "He has a poor, poor record of justice," she said. "I would hate to think of the kind of appointments to the Supreme Court and the Cabinet he would make. He only has compassion for conservatives."
Bush acknowledged that the priorities of his party have often seemed to clash with the goals of minority voters, but he expressed optimism. "Recognizing our past and confronting the future with a common vision - by doing that, I believe we can find common ground," Bush said.