Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney told skeptical civil rights leaders he would do more for African-Americans than Barack Obama, the first black U.S. president. He didn't flinch when he got booed in response.
The former Massachusetts governor doesn't expect to win a majority of black voters in November — 95 percent backed Obama in 2008. But his speech Wednesday before the country's oldest civil rights group was designed to show independent and swing voters that he's willing to reach out to diverse audiences.
"If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him," Romney told the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Pausing as some in the crowd heckled, he added, "You take a look!"
"For real?" yelled someone in the crowd.
The stakes are high. Romney's chances in highly contested states such as North Carolina and Virginia, which have huge numbers of blacks, will improve if he can cut into the president's advantage by persuading black voters to support him.
The U.S. president is not chosen by a nationwide popular vote but in state-by-state contests. That makes battleground states — which are neither reliably Republican nor Democratic — especially important in tight elections, as the November vote is expected to be.
Romney was also booed when he vowed to repeal the Obama administration's health care overhaul.
"Dumb," a member of the NAACP board, Bill Lucy, said later.
James Pinkett, a retired utility worker, said: "He must not know how much support there is in the African-American community for health care, and he comes in and calls it Obamacare. ... We just think it should be given a chance to work."
While more Americans oppose the law than support it, blacks are a notable exception. More African-Americans say in polls that they strongly support the law than strongly oppose it.
At other points, Romney earned scattered clapping for his promises to create jobs and improve education. His campaign described it as "thunderous applause."
In an interview with Fox News after the speech, Romney said he had expected the negative reaction to some of his comments. "I am going to give the same message to the NAACP that I give across the country, which is that Obamacare is killing jobs," he said.
Obama spoke to the NAACP during the 2008 campaign, but he has dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to address the group on Thursday.
For the past year, Romney's campaign has sought to avoid any overt discussion of race. The campaign is mindful both of the sensitivities of Romney being a white man looking to unseat the nation's first black president and of Romney's Mormon church's complicated racial history, having barred men of African descent from the priesthood until 1978.
But on Wednesday, Romney confronted race head-on. Within minutes of taking the stage, Romney made note of his opponent's historic election achievement — and then accused him of not doing enough to help African-American families on everything from family policy to education to health care.
"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," Romney said, to murmuring from the crowd.
Romney got a better reception when he spoke about the economy, which remains the top issue in this election.
He vowed to help put blacks back to work. He noted that the 14.4 percent unemployment rate among blacks is much higher than the 8.2 percent national average. Blacks also tend to be unemployed longer, and black families have a lower median income, Romney said.
Looking to heal wounds on civil rights, he added, "The Republican Party's record, by the measures you rightly apply, is not perfect."
Romney also highlighted his personal connection to civil rights issues. His father, George Romney, spoke out against segregation in the 1960s and, as governor of Michigan, toured the state's inner cities as race riots wracked Detroit and other urban areas across the country. The elder Romney went on to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where he pushed for housing reforms to help blacks.
Mitt Romney did not comment on a series of contentious new voter ID laws that critics say are aimed at making it harder for blacks and Hispanics to vote. He has expressed support for such laws.