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Romney rarely speaks to predominantly black audiences at political events. One exception was a May visit to a charter school in Philadelphia, where he cast fixing the education system as a way to help blacks and other minorities.

In framing education as a civil rights issue, Romney is following in George W. Bush’s footsteps. At a sweeping address to the NAACP in 2000, Bush, then the Republican presidential nominee, said the education system should “leave no child behind” and labeled the “soft bigotry of low expectations” as part of the problem facing black students.

Romney has a personal history with civil rights issues. His father, George, spoke out against segregation in the 1960s and, as governor of Michigan, toured the state’s inner cities as race riots wracked Detroit and other urban areas across the country. He went on to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where he pushed for housing reforms to help blacks.

In recent months, Obama has approached race from an intensely personal perspective. After the shooting of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin in a Florida neighborhood — an act many blacks saw as racially motivated — Obama spoke directly to Martin’s parents from the Rose Garden. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama said.

Diminished enthusiasm for the president following the economic downturn could dampen black turnout, and that could make the difference in Southern states Obama won in 2008, particularly North Carolina and Virginia.