YORK, Pa. – President Bush said Friday that he was declining an invitation to speak to the NAACP’s convention in Philadelphia because of harsh statements about him by leaders of the venerable civil rights group.

“I would describe my relationship with the current leadership as basically nonexistent,” Bush told reporters. “You’ve heard the rhetoric and the names they’ve called me.”

Bush added that he “admired some” NAACP leaders and said he would seek members’ support “in other ways.”

The snub was a far cry from candidate Bush’s appeal to the NAACP four years ago when he conceded at its convention in Baltimore that Republicans hadn’t always gotten along with the group.

“The NAACP and the GOP – not always been allies, I know that,” Bush said then. “But recognizing our past and confronting the common future with a common vision – by doing that, I believe we can find common ground.”

They haven’t. NAACP President Kweisi Mfume plans to respond to Bush at a news conference Saturday.

It’s the fourth straight year that Bush has declined an invitation to attend the NAACP convention, which opens Saturday in Philadelphia and runs through Thursday. He’s the first sitting president since Herbert Hoover not to address the group.

White House officials initially said scheduling conflicts prevented Bush from making the journey to Philadelphia or addressing the conference via satellite, as he did Thursday to the League of United Latin American Citizens convention San Antonio, Texas.

Administration officials traveling with the president on Friday on a campaign bus swing through south-central Pennsylvania signaled that White House annoyance with the NAACP was the major factor.

“The current leadership of the NAACP has certainly made some rather hostile political comments about the president over the past few years,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Allentown.

NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, speaking to lawmakers and business leaders in Indiana last month, said Bush and other Republicans appeal to a racist “dark underside of American culture.”

“They preach racial equality but practice racial division,” Bond said. “Their idea of equal rights is the American flag and Confederate swastika flying side by side.”

At the 2001 NAACP convention in New Orleans, Bond said Bush “has selected nominees from the Taliban wing of American politics, appeased the wretched appetites of the extreme right wing and chosen Cabinet officials whose devotion to the Confederacy is nearly canine in its uncritical affection.”

On Thursday, Mfume accused the Bush administration of treating the black community cynically by courting the black vote while stiffing black organizations like the NAACP.

“We’re not fools,” he said. “If you’re going to court us, court us in the daytime, but not like we’re a prostitute where you run around at night or behind closed doors and want to deal with us, but not want to deal with us in the light of day.”

McClellan said the Bush administration has been courting African-American voters through its political agenda. When Bush talks about his “No Child Left Behind” education program, he often speaks about eliminating the “soft bigotry of low expectations” that minority children experience in public schools.

The administration contends that Bush’s “faith-based initiative” also helps the African-American community by using black churches to deliver some federal services and programs.

“The president is going to fight for every single vote and he’s going to fight hard to win support from the African-American community, and he certainly has a strong record of accomplishment on issues of importance to the African-American community,” McClellan said.

Bush received only 9 percent of the African-American vote in 2000.

Friday was Bush’s 30th visit to Pennsylvania, considered a battleground state. Bush lost Pennsylvania to former Vice President Al Gore here in 2000 by 5 percentage points. Bush and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry are running even in the state, according to recent polls.

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