By Steve Holland
CINCINNATI (Reuters) – Republican presidential hopeful John McCain praised Democrat Barack Obama on Wednesday in a speech to black leaders and outlined what he called honest differences with Obama over taxes, spending and education.
“I am a candidate for president who seeks your vote and hopes to earn it,” he told the NAACP, the country’s oldest civil rights organization and one of its most influential. “But whether or not I win your support, I need your goodwill and counsel. And should I succeed, I’ll need it all the more.”
Indeed, McCain told the NAACP that he thinks highly of Obama, who would be the first black U.S. president.
“Don’t tell him I said this, but he’s an impressive fellow in many ways,” McCain said to applause from the crowd.
“His success should make Americans, all Americans, proud. Of course, I would prefer his success not to continue quite as long as he hopes,” he quipped.
McCain’s warm comments showed there was no point in bashing the most popular politician in the African-American community. A poll published on Wednesday by The New York Times and CBS News said more than 80 percent of black voters said they had a favorable opinion of Obama.
And a poll this week from the Quinnipiac University said Obama led McCain among black voters 94 percent to 1 percent.
McCain accepted an invitation to speak to the NAACP this year after not appearing last July, a decision he said was due to the near-collapse of his campaign, which prompted him to launch a shake-up.
“As you might recall, I was a bit distracted at the time dealing with what reporters uncharitably described as an implosion in my campaign,” he said.
The crowd gave him a warm reception although some questioned him skeptically over education and the federal response to the recent Midwestern floods when he took audience questions after his speech.
McCain stepped gingerly around his usual strident criticisms of the first-term Illinois senator, saying he and his opponent have “honest differences” about the size and shape of the federal government, saying “higher taxes are the last thing we need.”
“My opponent and I have honest differences as well about the growth of government. And it may be that many of you share his view. But even allowing for disagreement, surely there is common ground in the principle that government cannot go on forever spending recklessly and incurring debt,” he said.
McCain spoke at length about his desire to turn around failing schools and improve public education, getting warm applause from the crowd.
He tweaked Obama for his opposition to a program to allow low-income families to receive publicly funded vouchers to send their children to private schools.
“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?” he said.
Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said Obama applauded McCain for talking about education, “but making education the national priority will require more than campaign speeches, or recycled bromides.”
McCain said he would establish a program to give bonuses to high-achieving teachers and would allocate $500 million to build new virtual schools and support the development of online courses for students.
(Editing by David Alexander)
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters “Tales from the Trail: 2008” online at http://blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)