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Sen. Obama Criticizes Bush Administration’s Record on Race Relations

Presidential hopeful Barack Obama drew the loudest cheers of
the eight Democratic candidates at a civil rights forum as he assailed the Bush
administration’s record on race relations.

The candidates shared the stage Thursday at the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s 98th annual convention.
Obama, seeking to become the first black president, drew the strongest applause
from the 3,000 people at the event.

“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. Candidates are
in a fierce struggle to capture their support and are refusing to cede it to
Obama. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the front-runner, enjoys strong support in the
black community and is married to former President Clinton, who was wildly
popular among black voters. John Edwards has won praise from black leaders for
his commitment to fighting poverty.

After the forum, microphones picked up Clinton and Edwards
discussing their desire to limit future joint appearances to exclude some
rivals lower in the crowded field. “We should try to have a more serious
and a smaller group,” Edwards said.

Clinton agreed. “We’ve got to cut the number. …
They’re not serious,” she said, then thanked Obama and Ohio Rep. Dennis
Kucinich as they walked by. Turning back to Edwards, she added that she thought
their campaigns had already tried to limit the debates and “we’ve gotta
get back to it.”

Obama’s performance was the first time he has managed to
outshine Clinton in a candidate’s forum. That includes 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

All the candidates were warmly welcomed in Detroit. Even
before Obama spoke, the crowd at Cobo Center was clearly in his corner.

Obama derided President Bush’s commutation of former White
House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s prison term, noting black men
routinely serve time.

“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 Georgia
man serving a 10-year prison sentence for having consensual oral sex with a
15-year-old girl when he was 17. A judge last month ordered Wilson to be freed,
but prosecutors are blocking the order.

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, who delivered his
opening remarks after the Illinois senator.

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.

“I’ve been around a while, and I’m old enough to
remember the civil rights movement,” Biden, 64, said, adding he was the
best candidate to bring an end to the Iraq war.

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.

She cited “Invisible Man,” Ralph Ellison’s classic
novel of black alienation. She also thanked the organist, whose music helped
fill the gaps between programs on the stage, for providing a spiritual
dimension to the forum.

“I think we needed to have a little uplift here,”
she said. “If we’re going to win this election, it’s going to be because
we have faith.”

Edwards emphasized his commitment to fighting poverty,
calling it “the cause of my life.” He plans to begin a multistate
tour Monday in New Orleans to spotlight the millions of people who live in

Edwards’ call for felons’ voting rights to be restored also
received loud cheers. Yet as a senator from North Carolina in 2002 he voted
against a bill allowing felons the right to vote in federal elections.

The topic of voting rights drew an impassioned response from
the candidates, many of who spoke of the disputed 2000 election in Florida that
saw many black voters disenfranchised.

“The American people don’t feel that when they go vote
their vote counts,” New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said.

Dodd praised the NAACP for holding a burial ceremony for the
“N-word” earlier this week.

“We ought to have more burials. Why not bury neglect?
Bigotry? The failed policy in Iraq?” Dodd asked, adding that he believed
every Democrat on the stage would be a better president than Bush.

Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel also participated.

Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo was the lone GOP candidate and
said he accepted the invitation because his message is for all people in the
U.S. 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

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