(The Root) — Give Mitt Romney credit. On Wednesday in Houston, he addressed the NAACP's 103rd annual convention, made his case and gave African-American voters — who will still undoubtedly remain solidly behind President Barack Obama — something to think about.
Telling the members of the nation's oldest civil rights organization that "support is asked for and earned," Romney acknowledged the trust deficit between the GOP and many black voters, but he also argued that his campaign is "about helping the middle class in America" and that "the course the president has set won't do that."
And with a smirk that he probably couldn't help — and that probably didn't help him — Romney added, "If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him."
Slow down, governor.
The speech was good, but it wasn't that good.
Romney did at least one thing better than the president. He kept it brief — avoiding those extra 10 minutes of every Obama speech that leave you wondering if White House speechwriters get paid by the word. And he followed my advice to leave his church's once-tenuous but improved relationship with African Americans out of it.
All in all, Romney got what he wanted. Giving a keynote address to a skeptical constituency gives him a chance to try doing what the last GOP president couldn't: be a uniter, not a divider. But there were a few key points that turned what could have been a win into a push at best:
Although the big news out of the speech will be the chorus of boos that followed Romney's restatement of his plan to repeal "Obamacare," that should have been expected.
Romney's real problem is what he said right before that: "I'm going to eliminate every non-essential, expensive program I can find." It's an almost comically vague promise to tackle "big government" that both Romney's conservative base and black voters hear as, "I'll cut Head Start and teacher pay, but stealth bombers and ethanol subsidies are safe."
Plus, teacher pay isn't a hypothetical. Romney's best line was declaring of black children that "our society sends them into mediocre schools, then expects them to perform with excellence — and that's simply not fair." Schools and school choice resonate with African-American voters on both sides of the aisle.
But when that statement is contrasted with his recent comment that class isn't an issue, and his flip-flop on Obama's 2009 stimulus — which Romney himself initially called for and which plugged a teacher pay gap at state and local levels — he sounds as if he's trying to have it both ways.
And the most poetic line in the speech was also its most hollow. Romney said that if only black voters "understood who I truly am in my heart … you would vote for me for president." But he failed to alleviate — or even address — the concerns of African Americans who, regardless of politics, are put off by Romney's ties with birth certificate conspiracy theorists like Donald Trump and Herman Cain.
Romney clearly understands the rhetoric. His concluding pledge that he "won't agree on every issue, but I do promise that your hospitality to me today will be returned" was a summation that, if sincere, is hard to argue with.
Ultimately, though, after a winning intro, he fell back on boilerplate — that he'd "clamp down" on China (read: Obama's soft), "restore economic freedom" (read: Obama's a socialist) and "work to reform and save Medicare" (read: vouchers). Romney did a good job of sticking to his core message but probably fell short of moving the needle his way among the broad African-American electorate.
Which no one, including Romney, expected anyway.
David Swerdlick is a contributing editor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.