updated 7/15/2005 5:19:44 PM ET 2005-07-15T21:19:44

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman told NAACP members Thursday the GOP was wrong for ignoring the black vote for decades and said he hoped they could restore their historic bond.

"By the '70s and into the '80s and '90s, the Democrat Party solidified its support in the African-American community, and we Republicans did not effectively reach out," Mehlman told more than 500 NAACP members at their annual convention. "Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I come here as Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong."

Mehlman and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, speaking before him at the convention, each accused the other party from benefiting from racial polarization.

"The Southern strategy lives today," Dean said, referring to the Republican strategy of the 1960s and 1970s when the GOP wooed white voters in the former Confederacy.

Dean criticized President Bush for using the word "quota" when talking about affirmative action policies, calling it a racially charged code word, and he predicted racial polarization would happen in 2006 in relation to immigrants.

Dean said Democrats won't divide the nation to win an election.

"I'm tired of being divided," he said. "We need to stand for all of us."

Mehlman said it was the Republican Party that was founded to end slavery and it was the GOP that led the effort to give blacks the right to vote. He said blacks are better served when both parties are fighting for their support.

Bush declined NAACP's invitation
He urged NAACP members to give Republicans a chance, saying the party would help them own their own businesses and homes and save for retirement.

"We're not asking for you to embrace all of our policies," he said. "All we're asking is for a fair hearing."

Bush received just 11 percent of the black vote in last year's campaign.

Mehlman is the first GOP head to visit the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People since the 2000 campaign.

For the fifth straight year, Bush declined an invitation to the group's annual convention, attended by more than 8,000 people from across the country. The White House said it couldn't fit the event in his schedule.

Instead, Bush appeared in Indianapolis at the Indiana Black Expo Summer Celebration, which promotes opportunities for blacks.

NAACP board chairman Julian Bond said he was disappointed the president didn't make time to visit and said next year he hoped he would attend the convention.

Lottie Tann, of Ellenville, N.Y., and Margaret Scrivens, of Nashville, Tenn., said they respected Mehlman's courage in speaking to the group. Tann said she might take a closer look at the Republican Party if the president appoints a moderate Supreme Court justice when he fills the vacant seat.

"One speech won't change anybody's mind," she said.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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