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At Urban League, Candidates Bicker Over Race


From NPR News this is Weekend Edition. I'm Liane Hansen. Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama took their presidential campaigns to Florida this weekend. The candidates both gave speeches at the National Urban League conference in Orlando. Casting a shadow over their visit before the mostly black membership was the ongoing finger pointing over race. The campaigns spent the weekend going back and forth over how and why the issue came up. But the voters at the Urban League hoped the candidates would move past it. NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

(Soundbite of applause)

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Thank you for your kind reception.

AUDIE CORNISH: John McCain drew polite applause for his policy speech on Friday. On Saturday, Barack Obama literally had them singing in the aisles.

(Soundbite of audience singing)

AUDIENCE: (Singing) Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you…

CORNISH: Obama's birthday is actually tomorrow. But his reception at the conference of the National Urban League was practically a gift. The Democrat spent the weekend fighting accusations from McCain's campaign that he was playing the race card, and a handful of hecklers at another event questioned Obama's commitment to the issues facing blacks specifically. In his speech before the Urban League, Obama got to have his say.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): We face serious issues in this election, and we have real differences. I'm not going to spend time assaulting my opponent's character. I'm not going to talk about Paris or Britney.

(Soundbite of applause)

CORNISH: The Democratic nominee hardly mentioned his opponent by name. McCain, on the other hand, evoked Obama's name several times. The Republican nominee also contrasted his tax policy and his view that opening up more offshore oil drilling has always been the answer to ending the country's dependency on foreign oil. McCain also argued that his education policy with its emphasis on training, vouchers, and charter schools was better than Obama's.

Senator MCCAIN: And if Senator Obama continues to defer to the teachers' unions instead of committing to real reform, then he should start looking for new slogans.

CORNISH: Where McCain ran into trouble with the Urban League audience was in the question-and-answer segment.

Mr. DENNIS RAHIM WATSON (Member, National Urban League; Motivational Speaker): Talking about charter schools, it makes no sense.

Senator MCCAIN: Thank you.

Mr. WATSON: It makes no sense.

Senator MCCAIN: Sure.

CORNISH: Dennis Rahim Watson of New York pressed McCain on education and the candidate's stance against affirmative action.

Senator MCCAIN: Now let me respond to that if I could. I'll do everything in my power to make sure that these well-educated men and women have the opportunities that they need and are absolutely our obligation. But don't you also feel an obligation to the next generation of young Americans who are growing up in poverty, who do not have access to a quality education…

CORNISH: And just outside the hall, televisions broadcast cable news reports of the bickering between the two campaigns. Both sides were alternately hinting and then defending themselves against accusations of injecting race into the campaign. So who was playing the race card? At the Urban League, voters like Dana Henry(ph) of New Orleans says the question is moot.

Mr. DANA HENRY (Member, National Urban League): Race is something that we have to deal with in this country. And there's nothing that anybody else can say to scare a voter into voting for a candidate. I think people already know who they want to vote for. They're just looking for some additional proof maybe to justify their belief in going with that particular candidate.

CORNISH: It's best for Obama to move on from this no-win situation, says Larry Hogan(ph) of New Orleans.

Mr. LARRY HOGAN (Member, National Urban League): If he talks about his race - how can I say it? - it would frighten mainstream America, that he's going to favor the black race. If he doesn't, he may get attacked saying that he doesn't acknowledge his blackness.

CORNISH: Hogan says both candidates need to get back to the issues. And the candidates yesterday said they plan to do just that. But other voters here say they fear this won't be the last time negative talk of race will rear its head in this election. Audie Cornish, NPR News, Orlando. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.