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CARL P. LEUBSDORF GOP uses 'values' to lure blacks



Published: Fri, August 19, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



For more than a generation, Republican leaders have talked of cutting the overwhelming Democratic support among black voters.

Now, under new chairman Ken Mehl-man, they're trying again.

He hopes to expand on the modest 2004 increase in President Bush's black support, which stemmed in part from the values-based appeal that also solidified the backing of white religious conservatives.

In Ohio, where a gay marriage ban was on the ballot, exit polls show his share of black voters nearly doubled.

Since becoming chairman in January, Mehlman has made a major effort to reach out to African-Americans. He has repudiated the GOP's "Southern strategy" of a generation ago, spoken to major national black organizations, held a series of town meetings with black Republicans and enlisted the 16,000 black team leaders in Bush's re-election campaign.

Next year, Republicans may field black candidates for top offices in five Northern states, including several religious conservatives who contrast sharply with traditionally liberal black Democratic candidates.

Two main issues attract black voters, the GOP chairman said: "a belief that faith ought to have a place in public life" and that "we offer policies that are the path to opportunity."

Some black Democrats concede that the mere fact of black candidacies helps the GOP. "It will provide them a greater amount of exposure in our community," said Kendall Moore, a county commissioner in Rockledge, Fla.

Overstating gains

David Bositis, a senior associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said the GOP is overstating its gains.

Even after increasing from 8 percent to 11 percent in 2004, he said, its proportion of black votes was lower than in 1996. He said Republicans face a big handicap.

"They haven't made any effort to promote issues that you would call uniquely African-American issues, such as affirmative action, felony disenfranchisement and urban issues," Bositis explained. "If a party is looking to bring a group under its umbrella, it's necessary for the party to adopt at least some of the issues that group is concerned about."

In a sense, the odds are against any black candidate before he or she runs. The country has elected only one black governor and three senators since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, and many blacks have had difficulty beating whites in statewide races.

At least two black Republicans have a realistic chance of winning.

In Maryland, polls show Lt. Gov. Michael Steele will be a strong foe for the Democratic nominee, probably Rep. Ben Cardin or former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, also a black.

And in Ohio, Secretary of State Ken Blackwell is the early leader of three top GOP officeholders jockeying to succeed Gov. Bob Taft.

But a scandal involving a prominent GOP contributor threatens to enmesh all of them. And one of the two Democratic hopefuls is black, Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman.

Black Republicans face uphill fights in Pennsylvania, Michigan and New York. Here's a rundown:

Pennsylvania: Former Pittsburgh Steeler football star Lynn Swann, now an ABC sportscaster, is the top GOP candidate to oppose Gov. Ed Rendell's re-election.

Michigan: Keith Butler, a black evangelical minister and former Detroit council member, is emerging as the GOP choice to challenge Sen. Debbie Stabenow.

New York: A top GOP prospect to succeed Gov. George Pataki is Secretary of State Randy Daniels, a former CBS correspondent turned businessman. But Republicans face an uphill race against Attorney General Elliott Spitzer.

Religious conservatives

Most of these GOP black hopefuls are religious conservatives.

"That has a very limited upside," contended Coleman, arguing that Democrats still have an enormous advantage because "the issues that African-Americans and Latinos care the most about are the issues that we're addressing -- rights, voting and economic opportunity."

But Mehlman said GOP outreach to blacks and Latinos also attracts white conservatives. "Some of the strongest applause I get is from people who are very conservative and who recognize this offers real opportunity to people who have been left out the first time around," he said.

X Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.




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