MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'd like to thank my colleagues Viviana Hurtado and Jacki Lyden for sitting in for me while I was away. Like it or not, the final phase of this year's election season is upon us. The economy is so central to this year's presidential contest and reeling(ph) political discussions up and down the ticket that we're going to ask NPR's Marilyn Geewax to set the stage by reminding us about what the key indicators on the economy are telling us and how those compare to four years ago.
That's coming up later in the program. But we are going to start with a conversation with a key figure in the Romney campaign. This was supposed to be day one of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, but Tropical Storm Isaac had other plans. The event won't get underway in earnest until tomorrow.
Still, Republican candidate Mitt Romney has some good news to celebrate - a new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows the race is at a virtual tie. In the Post poll, Mr. Romney's at 47 percent, the president at 46 percent. But Mr. Romney has not had much success reaching African-Americans. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found zero percent of black voters backing the Republican ticket.
So what, if anything, are Republicans doing to reach out to African-Americans? To tell us, we're joined by Tara Wall. She is a senior communications advisor for Mr. Romney's campaign. One of her tasks is outreach to African-Americans and she's with us from the Tampa Convention Center. You can hear the hubbub all around her.
Tara Wall, thanks so much for joining us.
TARA WALL: Thanks for having me, Michel. I guess I'm that zero percent? Among the zero percent? You know, I think that goes to show you what the - you know, the polling is a little off when you say zero percent, but it is what it is.
MARTIN: Well, what about that? What about that? How do you interpret that? I mean, the 94 percent support for President Obama...
MARTIN: ...is not surprising because African-Americans lean heavily Democratic, but in previous polls, I mean, Ronald Reagan, for example, was able to get into double digits. Bob Dole was able to get into double digits with African-Americans. They got at least 10 percent.
MARTIN: What's the disconnect here?
WALL: Well, I think the zero percent obviously discounts the numerous black Republicans, conservatives, moderates that are supporting Governor Romney. Certainly, though, we all know it is no surprise, as you mentioned, that 94 percent or, you know, greater than 90 percent of black Americans support President Obama.
But, you know, I don't think he can count on the numbers that he once enjoyed. There is a lack of enthusiasm, particularly given the economic situation we find ourselves in, and honestly, he really hasn't delivered on the promises that he's made to black Americans, and many do recognize that, particularly when it comes to small business, entrepreneurship.
This is the first time since I think Reagan, small business growth among black Americans has gone down. As you know, the unemployment numbers are astronomical - 8.4 percent nationally and 14.4 percent in the black community, for 42 straight months.
I think at the end of the day, it's hard to get enthusiastic about wanting to support President Obama when he made promises like the fact that unemployment was going to be at six percent four years ago.
MARTIN: Well, then let's talk about your candidate. Let's ask why he hasn't been able to make better headway, given those numbers. As you know, a number of prominent African-Americans have criticized President Obama for his lack of success in both addressing the economic concerns of African-Americans and more broadly, they feel, maintaining or deserving the kind of support that African-Americans have shown him. So why hasn't your candidate been able to take better advantage of the circumstances that you've described?
WALL: Well, I think, you know, part of it is getting the message out and that's certainly what we're doing. I think we have to get that message broadly. He's done that in many settings. You know, he's visiting communities. We're reaching out broadly in media, and of course, you know, we're looking at ways to make inroads and work in a bipartisan way.
I think he's done that in the past. I think folks, really, when they get to know Governor Romney - and I think they'll get to learn a little bit more about him and his history, his background, here at the convention - they'll understand that he does have a commitment to our community.
He has done things to bring down unemployment, to close the educational gap between black and white students as governor, and really does have a plan to get this economy back on track that will benefit black small businesses, the unemployment rate in the black community. It begins with free enterprise. It begins with common sense solutions to addressing our debt and our budget.
And I think that most people when they hear that message, they do embrace it. But yes, you have to recognize this is a - we're at a historic time. We do have the country's first black president and he does still enjoy and will enjoy a majority support, but we won't take any vote for granted. The governor will not take any vote for granted.
We shouldn't take any vote for granted, and I think that it's just a matter of allowing folks to hear the message and to decide for themselves at the end of the day.
MARTIN: As we've mentioned, as you've mentioned, African-Americans, among others, have been hard hit by the economic crisis, but many of the programs that Mr. Romney and his now running mate, House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan, are targeting for cuts are those that help people in economic distress, such as Medicaid, food stamps, college aid for disadvantaged students.
How would you expect that message to resonate with people who are benefiting from these programs? Or who know people or who are related to people who are?
WALL: Well, first of all, the only person that's gutted or taken money out of Medicaid is President Obama. He took $716 billion to pay for Obamacare. So this...
MARTIN: I'm sorry, I'm sorry, Ms. Wall. I'm going to have to stop you on that, because as you know, that this is highly disputed by the Congressional Budget Office. And I understand that this is a point of view that people have, but the Congressional Budget Office, which is non-partisan, says that those monies actually strengthened those programs. So I just have to address that.
WALL: Well, it was - but it was - it was the Obama campaign's own spokesperson who championed the fact that they took these monies away and took these monies out of Medicaid. The point is, this campaign, the Romney/Ryan ticket, has not talked about taking any cuts out of Medicaid. We're talking about reforming it and we're talking about preserving it for those 55 and over.
But for people like me and you, it's not going to be there. It will not be solvent in 12 years.
MARTIN: You're talking about Medicare. Tara Wall, forgive me. You're talking about Medicare.
MARTIN: I asked you about Medicaid. Medicaid is a program for the poor, for the low income. Medicare is a program for senior citizens.
WALL: Yes. Medicare.
MARTIN: That's what you're talking about.
MARTIN: So if that's what you're talking about, I think it's important that you specify that.
WALL: Well, I'm talking about - but the point is - the point is, look. No one is talking about gutting any of these programs. We're talking about common sense solutions that are going to - look - that are going to continue to maintain a certain level, a safety net, for low income, elderly, the disabled. Those are programs we do, you know, we do support. The administration - this ticket, I should say, supports, and has, you know, made sure that we preserve certain programs. But at the end of the day, you can't not look at where we need to make necessary budget cuts.
WALL: And when I'm - when - so, you know, we have to - no one should just say, blanketly target, saying we're just going to gut all these programs. I think that's false, and at the end of the day we do have a debt. We've run up - $5 trillion in new debt and deficits. Remember, we used to talk about this four years ago. We're not talking about this now.
When are we going to start solving this...
MARTIN: I understand what you're saying.
WALL: And we have to look at programs.
MARTIN: All right. So let's...
WALL: And so these programs should be on the table.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Our guest is Romney campaign communications advisor Tara Wall. She's a senior communications advisor. She's been particularly tasked with outreach to coalitions, including African-American voters. One of the things we're talking about on the eve of the start of the Republican National Convention being held in Tampa is the outreach of this campaign to African-Americans in particular.
You know, of course, Tara Wall, in the time we have left I wanted to ask about embracing a candidate is not just about policy, and of course there's the whole question of the connection that people feel to a candidate.
MARTIN: There's that famous, you know, who do you want to have a beer with. Now, as you know, a couple of days ago your candidate expressed certain views or made a quip on the campaign trail and I just want to play that clip. This is from a campaign appearance on Friday.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN SPEECH)
MITT ROMNEY: Ann was born at Henry Ford Hospital. I was born at Harper Hospital.
No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place that we were born and raised.
MARTIN: If the campaign is focused on the economy and policy issues like that, why would Mr. Romney raise something like this that many people find offensive and even racist? What would be the point of raising that?
WALL: First of all, there's a lot of - there are a lot of things that I have found offensive that have come out of the mouth of Joe Biden, for example, but at the end of the day I think everybody saw this for what it is, and that is, it was a quip. It was a joke. He's in his home town. He's got nostalgia. I mean, I'm from Michigan. I can totally relate.
When you get home and you're in your zone, you're relaxed, and he's just talking about being at home and being nostalgic, that's all that was. People are reading way too much into it and focusing way too much on one point.
MARTIN: Well, as you know, though, this has been a theme that has been kind of a meme of a certain group of candidates, including Donald Trump, throughout the year, throughout the campaign season. And before that, people questioning the president's heritage, questioning his citizenship.
And, even if you find it funny and other people find it funny, how do you then reach out to other people who feel that it is an attack on the president, that it's an attack on immigrants, in general, people with any non-white background? How do you address that?
WALL: You know, first, I reject the notion that we're insensitive to people's feelings or to people who might feel slighted by certain things. I mean, so to that end, I think, you know, when people - obviously, if someone's feelings are hurt, we're compassion about that. You know, and I just reject the notion that there's no compassion there.
The fact is people tell jokes from time to time on the campaign. We shouldn't be so hypersensitive. To the extent that, you know, people are - you know, like I said, there are times when there are things that have been said, outrageous things about our candidate from Joe Biden himself not too long ago. You know, some would see what he said was very offensive and off the mark.
MARTIN: So this is tit for tat? Is that what that is?
WALL: No. It's not tit for tat. No, it's not. But I don't understand. You know, at end of the day, it shouldn't be about these shiny ball objects that divert away from - yes - what we should be talking about, which is really sustentative issues, so I think that should be the focus. That is the focus. I think, sometimes, we get too focused on the minutia of these small, little quips that are made.
MARTIN: But why would he raise that? He was giving a speech. He wasn't giving an interview. No one asked him about it. Why would he raise it, then?
WALL: Well, he was on the stump. He was not - he's...
MARTIN: If his argument is that he's the grownup in the room, why would he raise something that you are saying...
WALL: He's - he was on the...
MARTIN: ...is unimportant?
WALL: You know, he's on the campaign trail. He was at a rally. He was - you know, again, it was a joke and, if people were offended, then you know, I'm sure - look, there are things that have offended me on this campaign to no end. It's not tit for tat. I think we're focusing way too much on a joke.
MARTIN: Finally, before we let you go, this is something that we wanted to talk about. We think that this is kind of central to the theme of both political parties this year, certainly both candidates this year, and that is the question of what is a successful country? What does a successful country look like? Do you mind if I ask you that question? What does a successful country look like to you?
WALL: Well, to me, it's - you know, it's ability to operate in a free market system, to have my personal liberties protected and to ensure that we are, you know, caring for the least among us. To me, that, personally, is important to me.
MARTIN: Tara Wall is a senior communications advisor for Mitt Romney's campaign, the Romney/Ryan campaign, I should say. She was kind enough to join us from Radio Row at the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa, Florida.
MARTIN: You can hear all the getting ready for the convention behind her and all around her. Tara Wall, thank you so much for speaking with us and best wishes...
WALL: Thank you.
MARTIN: ...for a successful convention.
WALL: All right. Thank you, Michel.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: As you just heard, political convention season is here and the economy is taking center stage, but what's true and what's just political bluster? NPR's senior business editor Marilyn Geewax is going to give us the state of the economy four years ago and now. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.