Political speeches have applause lines and "boo" lines. Which reaction do you think Mitt Romney expected when he promised the 103rd convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that, if elected president, he would get rid of "Obamacare"?
Yes, President Barack Obama himself has called his Affordable Health Care for America Act "Obamacare" on occasion, if only to defuse its derogatory connotations. Yet you don't often hear Romney refer to the Massachusetts health plan, which he enacted as that state's governor, as "Romneycare."
Why, many wondered, would the Republican presidential candidate antagonize his audience members in an otherwise cordial visit? Perhaps it was because his real target audience was not in the room.
That became clear shortly after the speech, when Romney told a Fox Business Network interviewer that he had "expected" the crowd's negative reaction. In other words, this campaign stop was not about wooing the NAACP, whose votes he was not likely to win anyway.
It was about, one, presenting a friendly face to swing voters watching through the media and, two, reassuring his party's conservative base that he wasn't afraid to confront Obama's liberal supporters on their home turf.
"I am going to give the same message to the NAACP that I give across the country," Romney said on Fox, "which is that Obamacare is killing jobs."
And Romney was even more direct in the even friendlier confines of a Montana fundraiser a few hours later. "When I mentioned I am going to get rid of Obamacare, they weren't happy," he said "But I hope people understand this: Your friends who like Obamacare, you remind them of this, if they want more stuff from the government, tell them to go vote for the other guy -- more free stuff. But don't forget nothing is really free."
That's how you connect with a crowd that views government-provided access to health care for millions of uninsured Americans is just another giveaway to freeloaders. No wonder he doesn't mention "Romneycare."
Romney also was booed for this nugget. "If you want a president who will make things better for the African American community," Romney declared proudly, "you're looking at him." This time the reaction sounded mixed: some boos, some applause and some bemused laughter -- as if to say, "You're not serious, right?"
But, all kidding aside, I give Romney credit for showing up to speak to the nation's oldest civil rights organization. His 24-minute speech received two respectful standing ovations and more than a dozen outbursts of polite applause from the very liberal crowd.
That's because he did manage to present a few constructive ideas to fight poverty, like school choice, free enterprise and marriage. Unfortunately, he stopped short on details as to how a Romney White House might implement those good ideas into action.
That's Romney's dilemma: He's a man whose past as a governor shows a clear record of using government to help people's lives. Now he must appeal to a Republican base that views government as a problem.
In that pursuit, conspicuously absent from Romney's speech was any mention of the R-word, racism. Fellow conservative President George W. Bush, despite the organization's many criticisms of his policies, waxed eloquent on the need to fight racism in his 2000 and 2006 speeches to the group. But Romney may feel constrained these days by today's conservatives. They tend to deny that racism remains a serious problem in the age of Obama, except when they detect it among blacks.
Romney's most poignant moment came near the end of his speech as he remembered his father, Michigan's former Gov. George Romney. I am old enough to recall how popular Romney was with African Americans as he ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination in the 1960s.
The elder Romney spoke out against segregation, marched arm-in-arm with Detroit civil rights leaders and helped write civil rights provisions in his state's constitution. Remembering the elder Romney reminded me of what disappointed about his son. George Romney knew how to speak with black Americans, not just at them.
E-mail Clarence Page at cpage(at)tribune.com.(c) 2012 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.