Sunday, May 4, 2008
April 22, 2008
By ELISABETH BUMILLER
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Senator John McCain opened a weeklong tour of the nation’s “forgotten places” in the Alabama Black Belt on Monday by acknowledging the challenge he faced in appealing to African-Americans and admitting that “I am aware of the fact that there will be many people who will not vote for me.”
But in a speech delivered against the backdrop of one of the great symbols of the civil rights movement, the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, promised to hear voters’ concerns and be “the president of all the people,” including those who supported his competitors.
Mr. McCain was framed in camera shots by the bridge where white police officers beat black demonstrators trying to march to Montgomery in 1965, and where Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama converged last year in a political spectacle to commemorate the footsteps of the marchers.
“There must be no forgotten places in America, whether they have been ignored for long years by the sins of indifference and injustice, or have been left behind as the world grew smaller and more economically interdependent,” Mr. McCain said to a largely white and friendly crowd on the banks of the Alabama River.
Mr. McCain’s trip, which seems a mix of Mrs. Clinton’s “listening tour” in her 2000 Senate race in New York and President Bush’s efforts to portray himself as a “compassionate conservative” in his presidential campaign the same year, is to take him to Appalachia; the economically depressed steel town of Youngstown, Ohio; and the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, the area hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Mr. McCain’s advisers devised the weeklong trip as an effort to show that a Republican could appeal to some traditional Democratic voters, or at least to get Mr. McCain credit for trying. The trip is also trying to attract a fraction of attention to Mr. McCain’s campaign in a week when the political center of the world is the Democratic primary showdown in Pennsylvania between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama.
Democrats dismissed Mr. McCain’s trip as a deluded belief that a Republican could appeal to poor people hard hit by seven years of Republican policies. “It’s like an arsonist turning up at the scene of the fire,” said Paul Begala, a former Clinton White House adviser and a Democratic commentator.
But some Republicans said that Mr. McCain, who has often bucked his own party and is seeking to attract independents and some moderate Democrats in the fall, had a rationale for the trip. “I don’t know if I would have picked the same locations,” said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster and strategist, “but it is not crazy for McCain to think that he can get Democratic votes that were unavailable to Bush in 2000 and 2004.”
At the least, the trip is providing video for Mr. McCain’s campaign commercials. Later in the day, for example, he was serenaded with old spirituals by the quilters of Gee’s Bend, Ala., in a slow-moving ferry ride on the Alabama River.
While a campaign camera crew recorded the scene from a pontoon boat, Mr. McCain stood on the ferry surrounded by a dozen black quilters who sang “The Old Ship of Zion” to the vaguely embarrassed candidate. He had just come from visiting their quilting center.
One quilter, Mary Lee Bendolph, said she was leaning toward supporting Mr. Obama, but she praised Mr. McCain for turning up in Wilcox County, which locals say a presidential candidate has never visited. “He came here and he did something, and you know what, nobody else did,” Mrs. Bendolph said.
The vibrant Gee’s Bend quilts became famous after they were exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2002 and 2003. Mr. McCain bought three on Monday.
His campaign would not say what he paid, but quilts of the similar large size in the Gee’s Bend center were $2,500 each.
Monday was the first time Secret Service agents joined Mr. McCain’s campaign. It was unclear how many agents were assigned to Mr. McCain, but there appeared to be a handful. The number is likely to increase as the election nears.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company