CINCINNATI — John McCain ventured into solid Barack Obama territory Wednesday when he addressed the 99th annual convention of the country's venerable civil rights organization, the NAACP.
He did not draw the crowd that greeted his Democratic opponent here Monday, where, as one organization official put it, "even the overflow room had an overflow room," but McCain received a respectful reception for his speech on education reform.
"After decades of hearing the same big promises from the public education establishment, and seeing the same poor results, it is surely time to shake off old ways and to demand new reforms," McCain said. "That isn't just my opinion; it is the conviction of parents in poor neighborhoods across this nation who want better lives for their children."
Obama has the overwhelming support of black voters, few of whom are Republican. (In a New York Times/CBS News poll released this week, 89% of black voters supported Obama, and 2% backed McCain.) But McCain's appearance had symbolic value and might be viewed as a plus by independent or undecided voters who appreciated the respect he showed.
In his speech, the Arizona senator did not shy from a cause dear to conservatives' hearts -- school vouchers -- and noted that Obama, who opposes them, derided the "tired rhetoric about vouchers and school choice." That, McCain said, "went over well with the teachers union, but where does it leave families and their children who are stuck in failing schools?" He received only a smattering of applause.
He also advocated better pay for good teachers, new teacher recruitment programs and fully funding No Child Left Behind, the Bush administration's controversial program for improving school performance by imposing standards and accountability.
McCain apologized for missing last year's meeting of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, but pointed out: "I was a bit distracted at the time dealing with what reporters uncharitably described as an implosion in my campaign."
Now that he is the presumptive Republican nominee, he began by praising his foe.
"Don't tell him I said this, but he is an impressive fellow in many ways," said McCain, a line that drew the loudest cheers of his speech. "Of course, I would prefer his success not continue quite as long as he hopes. But it makes me proud to know the country I've loved and served all my life is still a work in progress and always improving."
McCain spoke of the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in 1968, while McCain was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
"In our circumstances at the time, good news from America was hard to come by," he said. "But the bad news was a different matter, and each new report of violence, rioting and other tribulations in America was delivered to us without delay. The enemy had correctly calculated that the news of Dr. King's death would deeply wound morale, and leave us worried and afraid for our country. . . . If they had been the more reflective kind, our enemies would have understood that the cause of Dr. King was bigger than any one man, and could not be stopped by force of violence."
To the surprise and delight of those in the convention hall, McCain took questions, which ranged from judicial appointments to faith-based initiatives. His liveliest exchange was with a woman who identified herself as a Head Start employee who earns $17,000 a year.
"What are you going to do now as a senator [to] get the funding that is needed so Head Start workers and families can get the funds that are needed to educate the poor?" she asked. (Head Start is a federally funded early education program targeting poor children from 3 to 5 years old.)
"I will be glad to fully fund those programs," McCain said. "But there has to be monitoring, a measurable success . . . a return on taxpayers' dollars."
There is monitoring, she replied. "I cannot afford my housing; I cannot afford gas, and food and healthcare for my children," she added.
McCain ended the exchange with an attempt to win her over, calling her "a great, outstanding teacher" and "a great American also."
St. Elmore Sutton, a retired Southern California Edison worker from Prentiss, Miss., said he thought McCain had sounded the right notes.
"Who knows," Sutton said. "He might have picked up a few votes."