ABC News' Jennifer Duck Reports: Presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain tried to woo black voters Wednesday by speaking and later taking questions from a group that openly throws more support toward his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama.
Speaking to the NAACP conference in Cincinnati, McCain tried to charm the audience by praising his opponent, who is the nation's first African American major party presidential candidate.
“Let me begin, if I may, with a few words about my opponent. Don't tell him I said this, but he is an impressive fellow in many ways,” McCain said. “Senator Obama talks about making history, and he's made quite a bit of it already. And the way was prepared by this venerable organization and others like it.”
McCain told a personal story of how he learned of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.'s death while he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
"I remember first learning what had happened in Memphis on the fourth of April, 1968, feeling just as everyone else did back home, only perhaps even more uncertain and alarmed for my country in the darkness that was then enclosed around me and my fellow prisoners of war," McCain said.
"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. Doubtless it boosted our captors' morale, confirming their belief that America was a lost cause, and that the future belonged to them.Yet how differently it all turned out. And 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," he said.
After the pleasantries, McCain spoke at length about education reforms, arguing his plan to give school vouchers to attend private school would help low-income children. Obama has opposed McCain's school voucher proposal, arguing it would further decimate the public school system.
“Democrats in Congress, including my opponent, oppose the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program. In remarks to the American Federation of Teachers last weekend, Senator Obama dismissed public support for private school vouchers for low-income Americans as, 'tired rhetoric about vouchers and school choice.' All of that went over well with the teachers union, but where does it leave families and their children who are stuck in failing schools?” McCain said.
McCain said he plans to spend $500-billion in federal money to build virtual schools and pledged to support the development of online courses for students.
The Obama campaign reacted to McCain's speech Wednesday, stressing Obama would "fix and fund No Child Left Behind, expand access to early childhood education, and make an affordable college education a reality for every student."
“We applaud Senator McCain for addressing education in his speech today, as it is a central challenge for our long-term economic future and the future of all of our children," Obama spokesperson Bill Burton said.
"But making education the national priority will require more than campaign speeches, or recycled bromides. It will require a genuine and sustained commitment to policies that will strengthen and not undermine our public schools."
Republicans aren’t known to be regulars at the annual conference of the NAACP, a group that usually endorses Democrats.
President George W. Bush addressed the NAACP convention for the first time six years into his presidency. And last year Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., a GOP presidential candidate, was surrounded by nine empty podiums on stage because he was the only Republican candidate running for president to show up at the annual convention.
McCain made light of his absence last year by joking about the state of his campaign at the time of the conference.
“This is your second invitation to me during my presidential campaign, and I hope you'll excuse me for passing on the opportunity at your convention last year and not being here. As you might recall, I was a bit distracted at the time dealing with what reporters uncharitably described as an 'implosion' in my campaign. But I'm very glad you invited me again,” McCain said as the crowd applauded.