If he could help it, nothing was going to keep President Clinton from addressing the nation's largest civil rights organization this week - not even a historic Mideast peace summit.
Perhaps realizing that it's not good form to snub his party's most loyal supporters in an election year, the president rearranged his schedule to helicopter from Camp David to address the annual meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) yesterday. He reminded the group of what the Clinton-Gore administration has done to benefit the black community, like bringing the unemployment rate down to the lowest on record.
Not that the black vote - which played a big part in putting Mr. Clinton in the White House - would turn against the Democrats. But teeny-tiny cracks are appearing in the most monolithic voting bloc in the nation - symbolic cracks, planted by the cordial reception given to GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush at the convention this week (Bob Dole refused to even address the NAACP in 1996). And real cracks among young African-Americans, who increasingly call themselves Independents.
"There are lots of signs that the Democratic base is not there yet, and African-Americans are a key part of that base," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. According to a new survey by Pew, 56 percent of Republican loyalists strongly back Bush, while 47 percent of Democratic loyalists say they strongly back Mr. Gore.
Young African-Americans, meanwhile, like the younger population in general, are less interested in the traditional parties. According to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a third of blacks age 18 to 25 identify themselves as Independents.
"It's true, that the attachment of younger African-Americans to the Democratic Party is weakening," says David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center, a Washington think tank that studies issues affecting African-Americans.
But, Mr. Bositis adds, "as of yet, they still don't see the Republican Party as an alternative."
Bush tried to change that this week when he carried his message of compassionate conservatism to the NAACP and admitted a breach of trust between Republicans and blacks. "There's no escaping the reality that the party of Lincoln has not always carried the mantle of Lincoln," he said.
He received polite applause for his 15-minute speech - unlike his father, who, when he addressed the group as vice president, was booed and hissed.
The event alone indicates a growing confidence on the part of the Texas governor's camp, say analysts. "The fact that Bush goes to places where Republicans are perceived as weak sends a message that the whole electorate is up for grabs," says Frank Luntz, a GOP pollster.
Still, it's unlikely Bush will make serious inroads among the black community. For three decades, more than 80 percent of the black vote has gone to Democratic presidential candidates, with the Clinton-Gore team capturing 84 percent of that vote in 1996. A Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that Gore has about 8 in 10 votes among African-Americans.
While conventiongoers said Bush's appearance was "a beginning," they criticized him for being vague and having no agenda to improve relations between the GOP and African Americans.
"Republicans talk mainly about economics, but Democrats relate to black culture," said Sean Jones, who came to the convention with some friends from his Atlanta youth group.
Gore, during his address, told the group he felt right at home, and it was obvious the feeling was mutual. Unlike Bush, who came to the podium from offstage, the vice president bounced his way up the aisle, high-fiving, hugging, and shaking hands with the crowd.
He hit the specifics of the administration's achievements for blacks - lowest unemployment on record, highest home ownership, the most diverse White House in history - and of what still needs to be done: a higher minimum wage, an end to racial profiling by law enforcement, the strengthening of affirmative action.
In persistent jabs at his opponent, he repeated that "talk is cheap," and quoted Scripture about the importance of faith proved by works. The crowd loved it, jumping to its feet and showering him with applause and cheers - and an occasional organ chord of musical affirmation.
"Al Gore blew [Bush] out the frame," said Jennifer Littlejohn, a student at the University of Memphis, who was at the convention with her fellow university NAACP chapter members. They all felt Gore understood them and their issues, and appreciated his sincerity.
If Republicans want to appeal to blacks, they've got to do more than give a speech, said Rachel Bell, one of the Memphis women. "You got to go out in the community, you can't just put it on a piece of paper."
With opinions like these still dominant, there's no reason for the Democrats to be concerned about inroads from the GOP, says Bositis. In fact, he's convinced that Bush this week was not actually trolling for black votes, but trying to convince swing white voters that he's not so conservative.
Just look two years back, he says. Democrats targeted certain black voters and boosted their turnout, resulting in Democratic gains at the voting booth.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society