CINCINNATI - Appearing before some of his presidential rival's most ardent supporters, Sen. John McCain urged delegates to the NAACP convention yesterday to support school vouchers as a way to improve education in largely black, underperforming school systems.
McCain acknowledged that he will have difficulty making inroads among black voters. But he used his speech to the Baltimore-based civil rights organization to criticize the education views of his Democratic opponent, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, and to argue that the country needs to move away from "conventional thinking" with regard to public schools.
"Senator Obama dismissed public support for private school vouchers for low-income Americans as 'tired rhetoric about vouchers and school choice,'" said McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. "All of that went over well with the teachers union, but where does it leave families and their children who are stuck in failing schools?"
The Arizona senator pledged to offer bonuses to teachers working in the most troubled schools and expand scholarship opportunities for low-income students in struggling areas.
"For all the best efforts of teachers and administrators, the worst problems of our public school system are often found in black communities," he told nearly 3,000 members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People gathered at its 99th annual convention.
McCain received a polite, somewhat sedate reception - with only a smattering of applause for his education plan. It was in sharp contrast to the frenzied welcome that Obama, the first black to win a major-party nomination for president, received here Monday evening.
Before McCain took the stage, no giant lines snaked out of the convention center. No giddy supporters in McCain T-shirts, buttons or placards could be seen, and no "amens" were uttered from the crowd.
By coming to the NAACP, McCain was not expecting to change the minds of many black voters, experts said.
Rather, he was shifting his message to the center.
"It might help him with moderate white voters," said Merle Black, a political science professor from Emory University. "McCain is not showing up there to increase significantly African-American support for his campaign; it's more a sign of respect for the organization."
"This was the first time there has ever been an African-American major party nominee for president - that is the story," said David Bositis, senior research associate for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "There is only one candidate this year. And John McCain isn't that candidate."
Nevertheless, McCain praised Obama as "an impressive fellow in many ways" who has inspired many Americans.
"His success should make Americans, all Americans, proud," McCain said.
McCain noted that while past civil rights battles focused on "equal protection under law," the challenge now is to increase educational opportunities for blacks.
"After decades of hearing the same big promises from the public education establishment and seeing the same poor results, it is surely time to shake off old ways and to demand new reforms," he said. "That isn't just my opinion; it is the conviction of parents in poor neighborhoods across this nation who want better lives for their children."
The NAACP has taken a strong stance against school vouchers, arguing that they take vital resources from public schools and abandon minority students.
Nat LaCour, an NAACP member from Greenbelt, said McCain's education plan was "completely off-base."
"We all want to improve public schools, but we don't think that the way he wants to address it is the way to go," said LaCour, who retired this week as secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers.
Other NAACP members said they appreciated parts of McCain's message.
"I agree with him that there is a huge disparity when it comes to education," said Marsha Lathion, of Ypsilanti, Mich. "I'm not for school vouchers, but I agree that teachers really need more support. ... Frankly, I was surprised at the crowd in the room. I didn't expect to see as many people."
McCain said that even if he does not gain the support of most NAACP members, he will need the organization's "good will and counsel."
He also did something Obama didn't: answer questions from the audience.
He appeared relaxed and conversational during a 12-minute exchange.
McCain received huge applause for his response to a question about how he would reform the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is widely blamed for its response to flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina.
"The tragedy and injustice of New Orleans can never happen again," McCain said. "It will remain a national disgrace until the American people have the confidence that it will never happen again."
After the question-and-answer period, he stepped into the audience, shaking hands and posing for photos with a swarm of NAACP members.
Evelyn Foxx of Gainesville, Fla., was one of them.
She was eager to meet the candidate and called McCain's Q&A; "awesome."
But, she said, it wasn't enough to change her vote.
"I have no faith in the Republican Party," said Foxx, wearing an Obama button on her shirt. "America is in its worst state in my 57 years. The economy is terrible, banks are failing. The Republicans made a mess of things."
Willis Edwards, an NAACP board member from Los Angeles, said of McCain: "We invited him to be our guest, and we want to hear what he has to say. We are happy that he came."
At the NAACP's convention last year in Detroit, Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado was the only Republican candidate to show.
President Bush has had a rocky relationship with the NAACP through much of his administration, addressing the NAACP only during his 2000 campaign and at the group's 2006 convention.
McCain apologized for skipping the NAACP's convention last year, noting campaign troubles.
But he thanked the organization for its invitation this year and praised civil rights veterans.
He recalled that he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, feeling "perhaps even more uncertain and alarmed for my country" in captivity.
In April, on the 40th anniversary of King's death, McCain said he had made a mistake in opposing a federal holiday to mark King's birthday, but he noted that he realized his mistake and later backed a state holiday in Arizona to honor King.