DETROIT — Claiming "a solid record of accomplishment" on civil rights, President Bush told the National Urban League on Friday that he had reached out to blacks and suggested that Democrats took their support for granted.
"There is an alternative this year," Bush said. "Take a look at my agenda."
But it is his record that many black leaders found wanting.
"He's closed his door on black voters" while embracing "ideologically divisive, polarizing policies," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who occupied a front-and-center seat for Bush's speech. He dismissed the president's appearance as "a symbolic gesture."
Bush addressed the Urban League shortly after turning down an invitation from the NAACP because of what White House officials characterized as "hostile" remarks about Bush by NAACP leaders.
Bush's roughly 1,500 Urban League listeners received him politely, rising to their feet when he arrived. But they applauded only tepidly, if at all, when he uttered lines that unfailingly elicit roaring responses from partisan Republican crowds.
At first appearing a bit nervous, Bush quickly loosened up, exchanging quips with several in the audience, including Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, a recent contender for the Democratic presidential nomination.
At one point, the crowd burst into applause when Bush acknowledged: "I know, I know. The Republican Party has got a lot of work to do. I understand that."
As the din faded, he said to Jackson: "You didn't need to nod your head that hard, Jesse."
Bush won less than 9% of the black vote four years ago, a margin that he and his campaign hope to improve upon in November. Sen. John F. Kerry, his Democratic rival, addressed the Urban League's annual conference on Thursday.
While touting his domestic initiatives, Bush also cited eight blacks who held top administration posts, including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and General Services Administration director Stephen A. Perry.
"I feel I have an obligation to reach out to people from all walks of life," Bush said. "I have met that obligation, and the government is better for it."
After his speech, Bush flew to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he planned to stay during next week's Democratic National Convention. Bush, who addressed NAACP delegates as a presidential candidate in 2000, has declined the group's invitation each year since, becoming the first president since Herbert Hoover not to speak at a NAACP convention.
The dispute echoed the 1996 presidential campaign, when GOP nominee Bob Dole snubbed the organization and accused its president, Kweisi Mfume, of "trying to set me up."
Like Bush, Dole initially cited a scheduling conflict when he turned down the NAACP. He later appeared at an annual convention of the National Assn. of Black Journalists.
Bush turned instead to the Urban League, a community-based, business-oriented group that did not engage in partisan politics, although many of its members also belonged to the more politically active NAACP. Bush also had addressed the Urban League in 2001 and 2003.
During his 39-minute speech on Friday, Bush ignored the NAACP but lavished praise on the league, calling its members "dignified, decent American citizens." Bush was still in his introductory remarks when he spotted Sharpton, who also had a front-row seat.
"And it's hard to run for office," the president said, adding with a grin: "Isn't it, Al? Al Sharpton is with us. But I appreciate you putting your hat in the ring. It's not an easy thing. It looks easy."
Sharpton shot back: "It's not over yet!"
The president went on to describe an array of domestic initiatives that he said had helped African Americans, from education changes and tax cuts to increasing minority homeownership rates and providing more aid for historically black colleges.
After acknowledging his party's difficulties in attracting black votes, Bush urged his audience to give him a second look.
"I'm going to ask African American voters to consider some questions," he said.
"Does the Democratic Party take African American voters for granted? ... Is it a good thing for the African American community to be represented mainly by one political party? ... How is it possible to gain political leverage if the party is never forced to compete? Have traditional solutions of the Democratic Party truly served the African American community?"
Applause rang out with each of his questions.
Kerry, seeking to capitalize on the negative publicity surrounding Bush's decline of the NAACP invitation, unveiled a television commercial targeting black viewers.
"If actions speak louder than words, George W. Bush speaks volumes," the 30-second advertisement says.
"Each year, he's been too busy to speak at the NAACP convention. On the issues you care about, his silence is deafening."
The ad, which aired on Black Entertainment Television, shows an excerpt of Kerry's speech this month in Philadelphia to the civil rights group: "We can do better, and we will."
After Bush left, William B. Whitney, a league member from Greenville, S.C., described his reaction to the president's speech as "very lukewarm."
Asked if Bush had won his vote, Whitney replied: "Afraid not."
Times staff writer Nick Anderson in Boston contributed to this report.