HOUSTON, Texas — Black leaders here blamed Mitt Romney for the booing he received from the audience at the NAACP convention today.
It wasn't just his sharply-worded criticism of President Obama's policies, several people in attendance told BuzzFeed: It's that Romney doesn't know how to talk to black audiences.
"I believe his vested interests are in white Americans," said Charlette Stoker Manning, chair of Women in NAACP. "You cannot possibly talk about jobs for black people at the level he's coming from. He's talking about entrepreneurship, savings accounts — black people can barely find a way to get back and forth from work."
Pointing to what she sees as Romney's lack of interaction with the poor African-Americans, Manning added, "It's such a big gap in what he's attempting to sell us."
Some convention attendees at the Houston gathering of the venerable black group interpreted the wording in Romney's speech — from his use fo the term "Obamacare," to his reference to a "kitchen cabinet" of black advisers he assembled while Governor of Massachusetts — as insensitive to the largely African-American audience. But more broadly, they said he was trying to pass of a mildly re-heated version of his stump speech as a substantive appeal to black America — without truly addressing how his message applies to their situation.
Dedrick Muhammad, the director of the NAACP Economic Department, chalked up the perceived tone-deafness to the fact that Romney spends most of his time on the campaign trail talking to white, middle-class audiences in rural and suburban areas.
"He knew to bring up great civil rights stalwarts and quote them, but he still seems to have great distance in understanding the needs of our community," said Muhammad. "Instead of just throwing out buzzwords — 'charter schools,' 'free enterprise' — you can't just say that to us and get a positive reception."
Romney's perceived distance from the African-American community entered the spotlight this month when a Politico reporter lost his job after asserting that Romney is only comfortable around white people.
"I think the Governor had a fairly well-crafted speech, I think he just misread his audience," said Bill Lucy, a member of the NAACP. "I think he thought he was coming into a hostile environment... I think it's because he mostly speaks to rich audiences and people who don't have to think seriously about the impact of health care in their lives."
But Romney surrogates said the candidate deserved credit for not altering his central campaign message to fit a certain audience, and pointed to the standing ovation he received at the end as evidence that the crowd appreciated him accepting their invitation.
"We understand that folks aren't going to agree with us 100 percent," said Tara Wall, a Romney policy adviser. "But at the end of the day, I think that Gov. Romney's message was bold. He said what needed to be said, and he said what he he's always said."
Another campaign adviser told BuzzFeed that Romney's attendance at the convention wasn't primarily intended to break off a portion of the black vote, but to make clear to moderates that he intends to be an inclusive president.
"I think it's important to send a message that he's going to be president of the entire United States," said the adviser. "Everything can't be boiled down to politics, even thought we're in the middle of a campaign."
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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