Originally created 01/16/04

Bush met by protesters at Martin Luther King grave

ATLANTA -- Looking for election-year support from black voters in the South, President Bush was greeted at Martin Luther King's grave here Thursday by noisy demonstrators who chanted "Go home, Bush!" after receiving a warmer reception at a run-down church in New Orleans.

As Bush placed a wreath on King's crypt, a low chorus of boos could be heard from across the street where 700 to 800 protesters beat drums and waved signs bearing slogans such as "War is not the answer" and "It's not a photo-op, George."

Bush's four-stop swing through Georgia and Louisiana allowed him to court two important constituencies - religious conservatives, who make up his base of support, and black voters, only 9 percent of whom supported him in 2000. Events in both states were paired with fund-raisers, which raised $2.3 million for his campaign account, already brimming with more than $130 million.

In this year's presidential race, Bush probably will garner only slighly more of the black vote, predicts David Bositis, a political analyst in Washington who focuses on black issues.

"Nine percent is the lowest for a Republican candidate since Barry Goldwater, he said. "When you get a zero on a test and you take it a second time, the odds are that you're going to do a little better."

The president, standing silently, his head slightly bowed, appeared unfazed by the protesters at King's tomb, where he laid a wreath of red, white and blue flowers to mark what would have been the civil rights leader's 75th birthday.

King Center officials said they extended no formal invitation to Bush but accepted his offer to come.

The president's critics dismissed his visit to the grave as a symbolic gesture that only underscored shortcomings in the administration's relationship with blacks.

Back in Washington, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said not one policy decision made by the Bush administration - from the war in Iraq to the economy, from education to the environment - has mirrored King's dream. "The president needs to be more embracing of elected African American officials and the entire African American community every day of the year, not just on January 15th," he said.

Bush didn't speak publicly at the grave, but earlier at the black church in Louisiana, Bush said King understood that "faith is power greater than all others," and that it was important for America to "honor his life and what he stood for."

Bush was at Union Bethel A.M.E. Church, in a high-crime area of downtown New Orleans, to push his faith-based initiative. He typically uses black churches for faith-based events, but Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank in Washington. said Thursday's events were tailored to winning white voters too.

"They're aimed at white Christian conservative supporters," he said. "Appearing in black churches makes him look like he's doing all these things for black people. It makes him look less conservative, and that's a potential plus for white, suburban swing voters."

At the church, where pews are broken and the sky can be seen through holes in stained glass window panes, Bush announced that the Justice Department has finalized just such regulations affecting $3.7 billion in funding, primarily for programs that help crime victims, prevent child victimization and promote safe schools.

"That's why I'm here - to get involved with the faith-based initiative," said David Shelton Jr., minister from a poor church nearby that has fed 400,000 people the past 17 years.

Kevin J. Boyd Sr, pastor at an upscale church in New Orleans, said he was "sure politics is playing a part" in Bush's visit. "But when you're worried about your next meal, you're not worried about going to the polls."

After receiving a friendly reception at the church, more than 100 demonstrators chanted "Down with Bush" from behind barricades a block away from the D-Day Museum, where Bush attended a fund-raiser. Many of the protesters wore T-shirts with the words "one-term president." An effigy of Bush was set afire and had to be stamped out by police.

At a fund-raiser in Atlanta, Bush was introduced by Democratic Sen. Zell Miller, a conservative courted to the campaign after last year announcing that he would support Bush's re-election.

"I can guarantee you that I will not be the only Democrat working for his re-election," said Miller, greeted with loud hoots of approval from the mostly Republican crowd.

True to Miller's word, there were several other Georgia Democrats in the audience to lend their support to Bush, something in which the president openly exulted. After thanking Miller and the other Democrats profusely, Bush had a joke for the Republican supporter: "I'm kind of taking you for granted tonight," he said to laughter.


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