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Presidential Campaigns Spar Via NAACP Convention


I'm Maria Hinojosa and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, California's governor has signed a landmark bill meant to protect homeowners from unfair bank and mortgage practices. We'll speak with state attorney general Kamala Harris about that in just a few minutes.

But first, the nation's largest civil rights organizations have been getting some love from the presidential campaigns this week. Mitt Romney got a rocky reception at the NAACP convention in Houston. President Obama addressed the group by video today.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I stand on your shoulders and at the NAACP you have always believed in the American promise, that idea that no matter who you are or what you look like or where you come from, America is the place where you can make it if you try.

HINOJOSA: The NAACP also welcomed Vice President Joe Biden to speak in person today. Biden did double convention duty. He spoke to the National Council of La Raza in Las Vegas earlier this week. With us to talk about that and other political news of the week, we have Michael Fauntroy. He's a professor of public policy at George Mason University. Also with us is syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette. Welcome back to both of you.


RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Great to be with you.

HINOJOSA: So I want to start with Mitt Romney's speech to the NAACP, the oldest civil rights organization in the country. Boy, he faced a tough crowd yesterday.


MITT ROMNEY: If our goal is jobs, we have to stop spending over a trillion dollars more than we take in every year. And so, and so to do that, I'm going to eliminate every non-essential expensive program that I can find. That includes Obamacare. And I'm going to work to reform and save...


HINOJOSA: Wow. So Professor Fauntroy, you know, there's Governor Romney. He's out there getting booed on stage. You know, his line - people are saying his line is, look, he's out there and he took it, but Nancy Pelosi actually said it was a calculated move on the part of the governor to actually go to get booed. So what do you think?

FAUNTROY: Well, the first thing I thought of was Bill Clinton when he spoke before, I believe, the NAACP when he was running for president and had his Sister Souljah moment. You know, in some respects this reminds me of as calculated a move. I think that him getting booed at the NAACP is a badge of honor to be worn amongst his conservative base.

HINOJOSA: So it's to rally his base.

FAUNTROY: Yeah. I think so. And I don't think, you know, I don't know whether or not it was calculated but I do know that the audience was used, in my opinion, to try to elicit a certain response.

HINOJOSA: Well, so there's also been this critique which is, you know, if you invite someone to your home you don't boo them. So do you think it's appropriate for the audience to boo him? Or, you know, look, this is what democracy looks like. It gets a little messy sometimes.

FAUNTROY: Well, it actually is both. You know, I think there's something to be said for the argument that you invite somebody into your home. You know, you treat them a certain way. While he said he wanted to repeal Obamacare, I didn't take that as particularly disrespectful. He's been saying that sort of thing throughout the campaign.

So I think there's something to that. But it should also be noted that candidates often use audiences for various purposes and seek to speak to people outside the room. His remarks yesterday weren't intended for the people in that room - they were intended for suburban, white independent voters in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania and suburban St. Louis and places like that.

HINOJOSA: All right. So the sense of getting used. Ruben Naverrette, we know that President Obama won over 95 percent of African-American votes in 2008. So do you think that Mitt Romney has any chance of winning over any of those voters? Or what do you think that he gains from the appearance?

NAVARRETTE: Well, I have to agree with the professor. I think that this was a calculated move. This is a speech that goes beyond the people in the audience. It goes to the listening audience on shows like this, the viewing audience on the shows last night on television.

And it's really an attempt to do a couple of things. Not just to have sort of a Sister Souljah-type omen.

But also to stand up to this very valid critique of Mitt Romney that he is a flip-flopper, he doesn't have a core set of beliefs. He'll say whatever he needs to say to be popular at the moment. And from what I've read from other sources, a lot of the advisors to the Romney campaign will acknowledge that they are very fearful of this label and they are trying their best to sort of stay the course.

I don't know if that's a good strategy or not but they are very fearful of the idea of sort of making these right or left turns all of a sudden and being all over the place, rudderless. So I think this was an attempt to sort of say, listen, he went there. He's not going to get many of these votes. He got booed but guess what? He stood his ground. He came right back at them. I think that's what Mitt Romney gained.

FAUNTROY: But let me just say quickly, it's not like he stood up at CPAC. You know, it'd be one thing if you tell your friends uncomfortable truths.


FAUNTROY: But going to the NAACP is a different ballgame.

HINOJOSA: All right. Joe Biden also appeared at the convention of the National Council of La Raza earlier this week. I heard from people who were there that he was on fire, that he was really exciting this crowd. He did criticize Romney's position on immigration and criticized his failure to release more of his tax returns.


VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: He wants you to show your papers but he won't show us his.


BIDEN: It's kind of fascinating.

HINOJOSA: Michael Fauntroy, what do you think about this? Do you think that this speech can rally the Latino vote for President Obama where there's been some tempering of the love?

FAUNTROY: Well, first I want to say, that line may ultimately go down as one of the sort of classic political lines that we mark historically over the years.

HINOJOSA: It's pretty extraordinary.

FAUNTROY: I thought it was too. You know, I think that whenever you talk about large segments of the population and how they vote in one direction or another, the one point that we need to keep in mind is not just the proportion of the vote that goes to one candidate or another, but the total volume of votes.

You know, and so as it pertains to the Latino and Latino vote, just like as it pertains to African-Americans, the Democrats often have to make sure that they not just keep what they've always had but expand the size of the pie. And I think that's what Biden is really good at.

HINOJOSA: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Maria Hinojosa. I'm joined by syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette and George Mason University professor of public policy Michael Fauntroy. And we're talking about Mitt Romney's speech to the NAACP and other political news of the week.

So what do you think, Ruben? Do you think that Mitt Romney can actually get some Latino votes at this point? I mean, he's really struggling here.

NAVARRETTE: Right. Oh, absolutely. I think in both games it's really a question of turnout. Let me say a quick word about Joe Biden. It's very difficult for people like me who cover politicians day in and day out not to become cynical. I liked this speech by Joe Biden a lot better than the one he gave in Iowa in 2008 to a mostly white audience when he was asked about illegal immigration and he blamed Mexico for being dysfunctional.

That was not, to my mind, one of his best Latino outreach moments.


NAVARRETTE: So I think he did better this time around. And so it does sort of breed a kind of cynicism that they will, you know, change the coat they're wearing depending on the audience they're speaking to. But in this particular case it's about turnout, as you say. I think that Mitt Romney will do very badly with Latinos and very badly with African-Americans.

He may still win the election if the turnout among those groups isn't sufficient because of a deep ambivalence that particularly Latinos feel about President Obama. They feel he has been horrible on immigration. He's got a record number of deportations. He's been untruthful in the way that he's handled the immigration policy, and it breeds this kind of ambivalence.

Interestingly enough, every single overture that Obama's tried to do in recent days hasn't done much to dispel that ambivalence, if you believe the polls.

HINOJOSA: Well, but do you think, then, that they're going to just intensify the outreach to Latinos? And what do you think, Ruben, about this line show me your papers which is really...


HINOJOSA: It's pretty extraordinary.

NAVARRETTE: I like it. I like the line. I think it's great. I think it's fair because you have to hang around Mitt Romney's neck as I have - that he has supported the Arizona law. But, you know, as you well know because you've done the stories at PBS, there's another side to this story. It's not just Arizona, it's also Secure Communities, which is the Obama administration...

HINOJOSA: Well, that's what I was about to say. The Obama administration. Absolutely.

NAVARRETTE: After the Arizona law, and I know a lot about that thanks to good reporting by people like Maria Hinojosa, we know that the Obama administration is using Secure Communities to use local police to round up illegal immigrants by sending over fingerprints of people they arrest. And so...

HINOJOSA: Well, and then they're saying...

NAVARRETTE: ...(unintelligible) it was just so cut and dried. It isn't.

HINOJOSA: Right. And then they're saying that they're actually stopping it when, in fact, the numbers show it's maybe not that way. All right. Let's move on. We have just a couple of minutes left. Let's talk. Michael, you were really interested about what happened with the - in the House where, two weeks after the Supreme Court upholds most of the Affordable Care Act, the House is now voting to say no. So you're really upset about this. You think this is a waste of time.

FAUNTROY: That's not strong enough and I can't use the real language I want to use because...

HINOJOSA: No, don't, don't, don't.

FAUNTROY: Because I don't want to get you in trouble with the FCC, but this is a real waste of time. You look at all of the things that need to be done in this country, the small range of issues in which we could possibly find some bipartisan agreement in the House and the Senate and the House just goes off the reservation, yet again, to chase a dog down the street that is never going to amount to anything.

HINOJOSA: And, Ruben, what you're actually thinking this is a good thing. Why?

NAVARRETTE: What? The vote itself in the House?

HINOJOSA: Yeah. Well, what are you saying? Are you saying that this is not a waste of time?

NAVARRETTE: I think it's theatre. I think it's theatre and it's probably a waste of time, but most of what I think Congress does on votes like this - symbolic votes like this - is a waste of time. It's not the first time that either Democrats or Republicans have taken a symbolic vote that they can go back to their constituents with and say, look. Look what we did.

And so I think that it is pointless, given where we're at, given what the Senate is likely to do and given what the Supreme Court has already decided, but you know, they've got to - if you don't have both sides fighting, you don't have a game, so Republicans can't just capitulate. They've got to rally the flag every once in a while.

HINOJOSA: All right. We have one minute left, but really quickly, the other big news is that the president raised $70 million compared to $107 million by Governor Romney's campaign. Do you think the president can recover? Will people now say, oh, my God, immediately, I'm writing a check now?

FAUNTROY: Well, I don't know if that's what people are going to say, but it is true that what's more important is whether the president has the money he needs to run the kind of campaign he wants to run, not whether or not he can catch up with Romney because he can't.

HINOJOSA: What do you think, Ruben? Do you think that this is going to inspire let's say those Latinos who are, like, on the fence who say, oh, I may not like him a lot, but Mitt Romney is outpacing his fundraising. I'm going to send a check.

NAVARRETTE: It might, but you know, it's all about excitement. Right? It's about excitement to turn out, to write checks. So, undoubtedly, you have a lot of Americans out there who like Barack Obama personally, who support him, but they're just not excited about him. They just don't believe in him and that's going to be a problem for his reelection.

HINOJOSA: All right. Well, we'll see how it goes. We want to thank both of you for joining us. Ruben Navarrette, syndicated columnist who's joining us from San Diego and right here in the studio, Michael Fauntroy is a professor of public policy at George Mason University and he was kind enough to join us in Washington.

Thanks to both of you.

FAUNTROY: Thank you.

NAVARRETTE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.