By Steve Holland
HOUSTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was booed by a mostly African-American crowd on Wednesday, as a speech before a civil rights group became the latest episode to raise questions about his strategy in battling Democratic President Barack Obama.
Appearing before the annual convention of the NAACP - a group whose members are among Obama's strongest supporters - Romney gave what amounted to his standard campaign pitch, emphasizing his ability to create jobs.
Although several of his lines were greeted with applause, Romney drew waves of boos when he blasted Obama's record on jobs and the healthcare overhaul that was backed by the president and recently upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
"If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him," Romney told the crowd in a reference to the high unemployment among blacks - 14.4 percent, compared with the national average of 8.2 percent.
The comment prompted a smattering of boos.
"Take a look," he said. "No!" a woman shouted.
Romney's vow to repeal and replace the healthcare law known as "Obamacare" did not go over much better. The law - which among other things requires most Americans to buy insurance and helps the elderly save on prescription drugs - has broad support among African-Americans, according to polls.
"I'm going to eliminate every expensive, non-essential program. That includes Obamacare," Romney told the crowd of hundreds in a half-filled ballroom. Sustained boos of more than 10 seconds broke out, and Romney seemed unsettled by the reaction.
Romney drew more boos when he said Obama had promised to create more jobs, but "he will not, he cannot, and his record of the last four years proves it."
A SIGNAL TO CONSERVATIVES?
Romney received a standing ovation from many in the ballroom at the end of his talk. But it seemed to be more in appreciation of Romney's appearance than what he said.
The former Massachusetts governor's team knew heading into the speech that Romney would be presenting his case to people whose votes he has little chance of winning on November 6. Obama, the nation's first black president, is favored by about 90 percent of African-Americans in opinion polls. Vice President Joe Biden addresses the group on Thursday.
But Romney said on Wednesday he would seek the support of all Americans, and his decision to speak before the NAACP echoed that of Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008.
Romney's shots at Obama, however, left some audience members and political analysts wondering about the Republican's goal on Wednesday. Was it to court black voters - or to show Romney's mostly white, conservative base that he could take his message to the heart of the opposition?
It was the second time in less than a month that a Romney speech fell flat before an audience of ethnic minority activists who are firmly in the Obama camp. On June 21, his speech before a Hispanic group in Florida drew tepid applause and some boos.
Although Romney might have won admiration from conservatives and some black voters for his speech on Wednesday, the images of him being booed so lustily by the NAACP in Houston was not good for his campaign, said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Jillson said Romney's criticism of Obama and the healthcare law before black voters risked turning off independent voters who could decide the election.
"It's just a signal that Romney is tethered too far to the right when he goes in and gets booed by the NAACP," Jillson said.
"There is a moderate, suburban independent vote out there that has not made up its mind yet, and those folks probably don't want to see the pictures that will be on the evening news."
'WE DON'T COUNT ANYBODY OUT'
In presidential politics, delivering what could be an unpopular message to an audience is something of an art, and often is designed to resonate with a broader audience.
Romney's NAACP speech drew some comparisons to an address by former President Bill Clinton in 1992, when he confronted a meeting of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition by condemning violent, anti-white comments that had been made by Sister Souljah, a hip-hop artist and political activist.
Clinton's remarks calling Sister Souljah racially divisive seemed aimed at centrist - and white - voters as much as the black community. On Wednesday, some analysts saw Romney's comments as being aimed as much at conservative whites as Romney's mostly black audience.
During his speech, Romney said his successful race to win the governorship in overwhelmingly Democratic Massachusetts showed he was willing to represent all Americans, regardless of color.
"We don't count anybody out, and we sure don't make a habit of presuming anyone's support," he said.
Romney, who is in a tight race with Obama, emphasized his belief that the free-market system would create jobs in ways government programs had not.
Romney said after the speech that he had foreseen the crowd's negative reaction.
"I think we expected that. I am going to give the same message to the NAACP that I give across the country, which is that Obamacare is killing jobs," he told Fox News in an interview to be broadcast on Wednesday night.
An outside adviser to Romney said the candidate's intent was to reinforce his economic message, which is "hard to say" without mentioning Obama.
The adviser, who did not want to be named, said Romney appeared at the NAACP event because "it's important to do if you are going to signal that you're going to be president of all the people."
Joe Hardy, of Jefferson City, Missouri, was among those in the crowd on Wednesday. He voted for Obama in 2008, but said he was undecided about the upcoming election. He said he respected Romney for "not trying to cater his message to his audience.
"He's a man of courage," Hardy said.
The Romney campaign hopes his focus on jobs and the economy will break through to some blacks.
Dominique Penny, 18, a biology student at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, said she would vote for Obama but listened to Romney with an open mind and that his plan for creating 1 million U.S. jobs sounded good.
"He did make some good points," she said, "but I'm sticking with my first choice."
(Additional reporting by Deb Hensel and John Whitesides; Editing by Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney)