GWEN IFILL: Unlike in previous elections, both the Democratic and the Republican candidates for president opted this year to make an appeal to the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization. Today, it was John McCain’s turn.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: I am a candidate for president who seeks your vote and hopes to earn it. But whether or not I win your support, I need your goodwill and your counsel.
And should I succeed, I’ll need it all the more.
GWEN IFILL: Obama spoke at the organization’s annual meeting in Cincinnati earlier this week.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: I know there are some who have been saying I’ve been too tough talking about responsibility. NAACP, I’m here to report I’m not going to stop talking about it.
GWEN IFILL: The two men chose different approaches to address one of the biggest distinctions in this campaign, that one of the likely nominees is, for the first time, African-American.
Instead of speaking specifically about race, McCain focused on issues that have a disproportionate effect on black voters, like education.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Over the years, Americans have heard a lot of tired rhetoric about education. We’ve heard it in the endless excuses of people who seem more concerned about their own position than about our children.
We’ve heard it from politicians who accept the status quo rather than stand up for real change in our public schools.
Parents ask only for schools that are safe, teachers who are competent, and diplomas that open the doors of opportunity. When a public system fails repeatedly to meet these minimal objectives, parents ask only for a choice in their education of their children.
Some parents may choose a better public school; some may choose a private school; many will choose a charter school. No entrenched bureaucracy or union should deny parents that choice and children that opportunity.
GWEN IFILL: Obama emphasized the issue of personal responsibility, as he has before black church groups.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: No matter how much money we invest in our communities, how many 10-point plans we propose, how many government programs we launch, none of it will make a difference, at least not enough of a difference, if we also at the same time don’t seize more responsibility in our own lives.
We can lead by example, as we did during the civil rights movement, because the problems that plague our communities, they’re not unique to us. We just have it a little worse, but they’re not unique to us.
They’re providing guidance for children, turning off the TV set, putting away the video games, attending those parent-teacher conferences, helping our children with their homework, setting a good example. That’s what everybody has got to do if we’re going to be moving this country forward.
GWEN IFILL: Both men were received warmly, but a new poll out today shows the nation’s racial divide is still wide. Nearly 60 percent of African-Americans surveyed said they consider race relations in the country to be “generally bad.” Only 34 percent of whites agree.
On the flip side of the same question, 55 percent of whites said race relations are “generally good,” a view shared by only 29 percent of blacks.
But on one point, there is near agreement: 70 percent of whites and 65 percent of blacks said America is ready for a black president.
McCain's NAACP speech
GWEN IFILL: The new CBS-New York Times poll shows something else John McCain acknowledged today, that nearly 90 percent of black voters say they will vote for Obama. But that didn't stop McCain from going to Cincinnati today.
For a look at how the crosscurrents of race are playing out in both the Democratic and Republican Parties this year, we turn to: Jamal Simmons, he's an advisor to the Democratic National Committee; and to Shannon Reeves, he's the director of state and local development for the Republican National Committee and a former NAACP official.
Welcome to you both.
Shannon Reeves, you were in Cincinnati today at the McCain speech. Give us some sense of why it is, given what we just saw in these poll numbers, that John McCain went to the NAACP.
SHANNON REEVES, Republican National Committee: Well, I think Senator McCain did an outstanding job today in addressing the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization in the world, as you stated, was received extremely well by the entire convention.
And for the first time in a long time, a Republican candidate for president of the United States had the opportunity to give an unfiltered message to the NAACP convention of about 10,000 delegates.
And the beauty of the convention today was not just the speech, but that, after the speech, he walked behind -- from behind the podium, picked up a cordless mike, and said, "If it's OK with you, I'd like to take questions and have dialogue with you."
And the convention just erupted. And people went into the aisles and began to ask questions of the senator. And he stood there and delivered greatly.
GWEN IFILL: Do you think he changed...
SHANNON REEVES: And I think this is what Republican elected officials have to do all across the country, and this is the beginning of where we're going.
GWEN IFILL: Pardon me. Do you think he changed minds today?
SHANNON REEVES: Oh, absolutely. I believe he softened a lot of those who started with their arms folded, but began to open up and say, "Well, let's listen and hear what he's actually talking about."
But the goal not necessarily was in one speech to change someone's vote, but first to say that I'm a leader, and that I'm worthy of being president of the United States, and I'm seeking your consideration.
And he said that, last year, I know you invited me, but I was busy trying to win a primary and to work among several candidates vying for my party's nomination. But I'm here with you this year. And from now on, I will work with you and seek your advice and counsel.
And that's what Republicans are now beginning to do across the country, and I'm so very pleased at how it went today.
Obama speaks about responsibility
GWEN IFILL: Jamal Simmons, we have seen Barack Obama go to multiple audiences, black audiences, and speak almost exclusively to those audiences about this notion of personal responsibility. What's behind that?
JAMAL SIMMONS, Democratic National Committee: Well, I think what's happened with Barack Obama as he travels around the country is he's talking to people like adults. He's having conversations inside of rooms, the same that people who are outside of those rooms will have the same conversation.
This notion of personal responsibility -- it's interesting. There are people who've had trouble with him talking about this. But this is the kind of thing that many people hear in families.
GWEN IFILL: Most notably Jesse Jackson.
JAMAL SIMMONS: Most notably Jesse Jackson. But many people hear this kind of talk, and many families -- you hear this in churches around America. So to have this conversation nationally is really talking to African-Americans in a way that African-Americans, in many cases, speak to each other.
The problem with what happened with Senator McCain today is that, as Shannon just said, last year, when it was inconvenient for him to come, he didn't show up. This year, when he's trying to win a national election in the general election, he shows up.
He's playing politics. And I think that's the problem that a lot of people draw with the way he's done this, whether it was immigration and how he's talked about that in front of Hispanic audiences, he talks about comprehensive immigration. When he's in front of conservative audiences, he talks about borders. So I think we've got to be careful about looking at his motives.
GWEN IFILL: But does it make a difference -- and I'm going...
SHANNON REEVES: I totally disagree with that.
GWEN IFILL: ... to ask Shannon Reeves about this, as well. Does it make a difference that the nominee of the Democratic Party or of any major party for the first time is a black person? Is that a reason, perhaps, why John McCain comes and speaks to black audiences or the reason that Barack Obama speaks the way he does to black audiences?
JAMAL SIMMONS: Well, again, I think John McCain showed up because he thought this was going to maybe not so much win him some African-American votes, but it may win him some votes among independents and people in suburban communities who don't want to think of the Republican Party or the Republican nominee as being someone who won't go out and speak to African-Americans.
So I think, because he's looking at this so politically, and you can tell by the way he schedules these type of speeches, by him showing up in an African-American community meeting like the NAACP during the general election, he really is doing what's politically palatable for him right now.
Playing politics, demographics
GWEN IFILL: Shannon Reeves, so is this about the white vote rather than about the black vote?
SHANNON REEVES: I mean, I think that's foolishness. I mean, you know, it's like the senator would be darned if he do and darned if he didn't.
If he didn't show up to the NAACP, then Jamal would be saying, "You see? He doesn't care about black people." But when he comes and addresses the organization, and not just gives a speech and talks about his principles and what he believes in, but then he takes questions and let's -- hey, let anybody ask whatever question they want.
And he stood there, and he took the questions as long as they were willing to give them. So I totally don't agree with that.
I served three terms on the national board of the NAACP and four terms as president of the branch in Oakland, California. And I'll tell you, the NAACP audience was not caught up in last year or the year before, but was caught up in what this senator had to say today.
And regardless of the polls, the fact of the matter is one of these candidates will be the leader of the free world. I firmly believe beyond a shadow of a doubt and no fear of contradiction that that candidate will be Senator John McCain, and he will be a president of all of the people.
So you can't on one side say, "Well, he doesn't show up," and then, when he shows up, you say, "Well, he only showed up to be political." The last I checked, this was an election. In an election, we play politics.
GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you both a question, which is whether this is more about -- Jamal Simmons, is this more about party affiliation really than it is about race, why candidates show up the way they do? If 90 percent of the people in that room are going to vote for Barack Obama, is it because they're Democrats or it's because he's black?
JAMAL SIMMONS: I think there's three reasons. One, he's a Democrat. Two, there are some ethnic pride. You saw that, when John Kennedy ran for president, Irish people flocked to him. When Michael Dukakis ran for president, Greeks flocked to him.
When an African-American is running for president and is the nominee, African-Americans are very open-minded and are coming toward him. But just because you're an African-American doesn't mean you get the African-American vote. Look at Al Sharpton. Look at Jesse Jackson. They did not get this percentage of African-American votes when they ran for president.
At the same time, he could have been a Republican, like a -- let's say Alan Keyes were the Republican nominee. He wouldn't have attracted African-American votes.
So it's party. It's ethnic affiliation. And it's also the fact that Barack Obama is talking about a program of economic empowerment, of health care expansion, and of ending the war in Iraq, which are issues that African-Americans feel particularly strong about.
GWEN IFILL: Shannon Reeves, do you agree about those issues? And I'm also curious about the question about whether it's possible for the Republicans as a party to begin to take back black voters from the Democrats and how you do that.
SHANNON REEVES: I think Jamal stated it when he first started, in that just because you're black doesn't mean you're going to vote for a black candidate.
The reality of the matter is, this senator came into a house where people have said that this organization and its members were predominantly going to support Barack Obama. He did not waiver. He came and he made his statement. And he's not stopping there.
We leave the NAACP, and we head on to Orlando, Florida, to address the National Urban League in just another week or so. So this is just the beginning, not the end.
And as for the party as a whole, absolutely, we're seeing in the Republican Party -- and it's my job as national director of state and local development, working with governors, and mayors, and state legislators across the country, who are developing new long-term strategies, working, having dialogue in the black community all over the country.
Just because we don't have a press conference about it doesn't mean anything. We just had three new African-Americans elected to the national committee, which is totally different from the DNC, where they have proportional delegations laid out in some sort of a quota system.
But these candidates had to actually run in their states in a Republican state convention and be elected. So we're making tremendous progress. I feel good about it. And I don't know about anybody else, but I'm fired up to be black, to be Republican, and to hear my candidate address the nation's oldest civil rights organization today, and do a great job.
Gap in perception remains
GWEN IFILL: As we saw in the poll in today's New York Times, there is still, however, a huge perceptions gap within the black community and within the white community about race in this country.
What -- I'll ask you first, Jamal Simmons, and then you, Shannon Reeves -- what can the parties do to begin to close that perceptions gap?
JAMAL SIMMONS: Well, what's interesting about what's happening right now is the African-American community in particular is wrestling with the reality of Barack Obama becoming the Democratic nominee. You saw this when he was running; a lot of African-Americans were very skeptical about his campaign.
There are things that are changing in America. And many African-Americans have not quite been able to get their minds around that. And so you do see people saying, "Well, maybe things aren't as good as they should be."
While, in fact, on the other side, I think white Americans are looking at it. And I'm glad they feel good about what's happening in America, because, frankly, that's where we need to be.
GWEN IFILL: Shannon Reeves, briefly?
SHANNON REEVES: Well, I think, with the Republican Party, the one thing we have to note. It took 45 years to get a black nominee in the Republican -- in the Democrat Party. It takes time.
When the black community coming out of a Jim Crow South, pushed their way into the Democratic Party and demanded positions, we're now seeing in the Republican Party a tremendous growth. I'm in the position that I'm in at the Republican National Committee.
We have a lot of growth going on. I feel very good, considering that it's my responsibility to develop the long-range strategic plan for my party. And I'm confident in my ability to do that and to get it done.
GWEN IFILL: OK.
SHANNON REEVES: So this is a great day.
GWEN IFILL: Shannon Reeves, out there in Columbus, Ohio, Jamal Simmons, here with me, thank you both very much.
JAMAL SIMMONS: Thank you.
SHANNON REEVES: Thanks so much for having us.