DETROIT (AP) – Presidential hopeful Barack Obama outshone his Democratic rivals Thursday, drawing the loudest cheers at a civil rights forum as he assailed the Bush administration’s record on race relations.
The eight Democrats shared the stage at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s 98th annual convention. John Edwards called on his “brothers and sisters” as he evoked the struggles of the civil rights movement. Front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton thanked the organist for soulful musical interludes.
But it was Obama, seeking to become the first black president, who drew the strongest applause and cheers from the 3,000 attendees.
“I know what you know, which is that despite all the progress that has been made we still have more work to do,” said the first-term Illinois senator.
Black voters are a core party constituency, and the candidates are in a fierce struggle to capture their support, refusing to cede it to Obama. Clinton is counting on the goodwill engendered by her husband during his presidency, while Edwards has won praise for his anti-poverty effort.
Obama’s performance Thursday marked the first time he has managed to best Clinton in a candidate’s forum, including last month’s debate at Howard University, a historically black college in the nation’s capital.
At the forum, each candidate responded to five questions from NAACP delegates on topics including health care, gun violence and voting rights.
Obama derided President Bush’s commutation of former White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s prison term.
“We know we have more work to do when Scooter Libby gets no prison time and a 21-year-old honor student, who hadn’t even committed a felony, gets 10 years in prison,” Obama said.
Aides said Obama was referring to Genarlow Wilson, a black Georgia man serving a 10-year prison sentence for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 17.
Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, was convicted of lying and obstruction of justice in the CIA-leak case. He received a 30-month prison sentence, which Bush commuted last week.
“I’d like to thank the NAACP for letting me follow Barack Obama,” joked Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut.
Obama, 45, said he was too young to have participated in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but said he was inspired by it. That comment prompted a mild dig from Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, who stressed his long career in public life.
Clinton said the forum would cover more issues of importance to the black community than the administration had in six years.
“We have a president who does not see what you and I see. … With your hard work, we will render the people that you and I see visible once again,” the New York senator said.
Edwards touted his commitment to fighting poverty, calling it “the cause of my life.”
Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel also participated.
Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, the lone GOP candidate, said he accepted because his message is for all Americans.
A vociferous foe of illegal immigration, Tancredo said the wages of black workers suffer because of illegal workers.
Associated Press Writer Corey Williams contributed to this report.