HOUSTON, TEXAS -- Mitt Romney told the NAACP today that he has the "best interest" of all Americans at heart and outlined why he believes President Obama has failed blacks on issues such as the economy and education.
He drew boos from the crowd in Houston at his first mention of wanting to repeal the national health care law he calls "Obamacare."
"If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him," Romney said.
The presumptive GOP presidential nominee was applauded at times in his remarks, which included references to Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass. But the polite reception changed when he said he was "going to eliminate every non-essential, expensive program that I can find -- and that includes Obamacare."
At that point, Romney veered off script to discuss a recent Chamber of Commerce survey showing people believe the law will cost jobs. He vowed to replace the health care law with something else that would help lower costs and said he would improve the finances of Social Security and Medicare.
The presumptive GOP presidential nominee has an uphill battle with African Americans, who have voted Democrats into the White House for decades. In 2008, Obama won 96% of the African-American vote on his way to making history as the nation's first black president.
Obama's campaign issued a long memo explaining why it believes Romney is the "wrong choice" for African Americans, citing among other things the Republican's stand on tax cuts and support for budgets that would cut funding for education.
"Mitt Romney and his allies in Congress believe that if you let Wall Street write its own rules again, take away rules that protect consumers and workers, and cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans, the markets will somehow grow from the top down," the Obama for America memo says.
Romney opened his speech by telling members of the nation's oldest civil rights group that if they could know what was in his heart, he would get their vote.
"I believe that if you understood who I truly am in my heart, and if it were possible to fully communicate what I believe is in the real, enduring best interest of African-American families, you would vote for me for president," he said.
As he has with speeches to Hispanic groups, Romney framed his appeal to black voters through an economic lens. He pointed to the 14.4% unemployment rate among blacks, as well as average income and median family wealth as being worse for black families.
"If equal opportunity in America were an accomplished fact, then a chronically bad economy would be equally bad for everyone," Romney said. "Instead, it's worse for African Americans in almost every way."
Romney promised he would provide federal funds so parents can have a choice in where to send their children to school, whether it be a public or private institution or a charter school. "I will be a champion of real education reform in America, and I won't let any special interest get in my way," he said.
The fact that Romney even addressed the NAACP is noteworthy, given the history of some recent GOP presidential candidates and the NAACP. George W. Bush addressed the organization as a candidate in 2000, but stayed away from NAACP conferences for five years as president.
Romney acknowledged that his party "is not perfect" when it comes to issues such as civil rights.
He promised that, if elected, he would accept the group's invitation to speak -- in an apparent swipe at Obama, who is not attending the conference this year.
In his remarks, Romney invoked the legacy of his father. When George Romney was governor of Michigan, he wrote the civil rights provision of the state's constitution. As a member of the Nixon administration, the elder Romney fought to end discrimination in housing.
George Romney declined to back Barry Goldwater as the GOP presidential nominee in 1964 because of concerns that the Arizonan was vying for the votes of white segregationists in the South. In the run-up to his own 1968 presidential bid, the elder Romney toured urban areas decimated by race riots in Detroit and other cities.
"More than these public acts, it was the kind of man he was and the way he dealt with every person, black or white," Romney said about his father. "He was a man of the fairest instincts and a man of faith who knew that every person was a child of God."
Vice President Biden will speak to the group tomorrow.
By Catalina Camia, USA TODAY