U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., was the rock star of the NAACP’s presidential forum, prompting enthusiastic standing ovations both at his introduction and after his soaring three-minute speech to the crowd of more than 1,000 people.
“I know what you know. That despite all the progress that’s been made, there’s still more to do,” he said. “There’s more to do when more young black men languish in prison than who go to college in America.”
Obama was just one of eight Democratic candidates who addressed the NAACP’s annual convention in Detroit.
The other two front-runners – Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C. – also received enthusiastic receptions. While each of the remaining five candidates – Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, former U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel, D-Ark., and Sens. Joe Biden, D-Del., and Christopher Dodd, D-Conn. – had lines in their opening statements that brought the crowd to their feet.
“I’d like to thank the NAACP for allowing me to follow Barack Obama,” Dodd said.
Each of the candidates had his or her own pet issues to discuss, including Clinton’s need for a new administration in Washington, Edwards' war on poverty and Kucinich’s crusade to end the war in Iraq.
"In two hours, we’re going to talk about more issues of importance to the African-American community than Bush has in the last six and a half years,” Clinton said. “Our country is ready for change, and I believe I can be the president to lead that change.”
Gravel said he didn’t come to Detroit to win any popularity contests, and didn’t make many friends among the candidates on the stage.
“The people are brighter and better able to lead this country than their elected officials, who are there for their interests first and foremost,” he said. “The Republicans have been a disaster, and the Democrats only a hair better.”
Biden told the crowd that he is the best equipped to assume the presidency because of his experience and his plans.
In a subtle dig at Obama’s age, Biden said, “I’ve been around a while, and I’m old enough to remember the civil rights movement … And no one has a plan for dealing with the reality on the ground in Iraq. I’m the only candidate who's laid out a detailed plan to end the war in Iraq.”
After their opening statements, the candidates each answered a series of five questions on school integration, gun violence, health care, free trade and voting rights.
Earlier in the day, and standing in the middle of 10 podiums, nine of them empty but waiting for Republican candidates, U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo asked, “Do you think we should wait a few minutes to see if these other guys show up?”
The Colorado Republican was the only one of 10 GOP candidates who accepted an invitation to speak at the convention.
“Do they know something that I don’t know,” Tancredo said. “The fact is that I know something that they don’t. We may not agree on all issues, but we do have a very common cause – that the playing field is level for everyone, and the gates of opportunity are open for all.”
One of the leading critics of immigration legislation on Congress, Tancredo used his three-minute opening statement to talk about the issue, calling it one of the most serious domestic problems facing the nation.
“The federal government refuses to do its job,” he said.
The audience gave Tancredo a standing ovation, more because he was the only Republican to show up, rather than approving of his stance on issues.
The Democrats fielded the same set of five questions handled by Tancredo, but managed to use them to speak about several dozen subjects, including the 2000 Florida election, making kids do homework and Head Start.
In one-minute answers to sweeping questions, however, it was difficult for the candidates to do more than promise to end the war in Iraq and spend more money on domestic concerns.
Each of the Democrats appealed for more spending on education, ticking off needs for teacher incentives for inner city schools, pre-K programs and construction, among others. Edwards even extended the need for U.S. leadership to provide primary schooling for up to 100 million children in the developing world, especially Africa.
Obama said it was time for America to care as much about kids dying from gun violence in Chicago public schools as those who died in the massacre at Virginia Tech. Clinton said gun violence declined in the 1990s when, coincidentally, her husband was president. But the Bush administration has taken cops off the streets and neglected the economy in the inner cities, resulting in a situation where cops in Detroit are outgunned by gangsters, she said.
On gun violence, Edwards said he believes in the Second Amendment but doesn't understand why anyone needs an AK-47 to hunt, suggesting it may be time to renew the ban on assault weapons.
Gravel and Kucinich filled their now-accustomed roles as the party's rabble- rousers, denouncing their more mainstream opponents as incrementalists and bidders for special interests.
Gravel was twice remonstrated by host Russ Mitchell for breaking ground rules intended to prohibit criticism of other candidates.
Clinton received rousing applause when she attacked Bush for his criticism of universal health care as "socialized medicine," and said that if he wasn't willing to deal with the problem, he should leave office early.