GOP Plans More Outreach to Blacks, Mehlman Says

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 7, 2005

ATLANTA -- Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman stood before a roomful of black journalists last week fielding pointed questions about his party's mostly shaky relationship with black voters.

Asked about the southern strategy that used race as an issue to build GOP dominance in the once Democratic South, Mehlman acknowledged that Republican candidates often have prospered by ignoring black voters and even by exploiting racial tensions. But he pledged that such neglect is a thing of the past. "Our plan for 2006 and 2008 is to increase African American turnout," he said crisply.

Republican candidates who exploited racial resentments to solidify white support, he added, were simply wrong.

Unconvinced, one questioner asked whether President Bush was guilty of appealing to those very resentments when he appeared at South Carolina's Bob Jones University when his GOP primary campaign was listing in 2000, even though the fundamentalist Christian school banned interracial dating. Mehlman did not flinch -- but neither did he directly engage the question. Bush "has been a model" of how the GOP and blacks can "restore their historic bond," he said.

Distancing the party from its recent past and promising a more inclusive future has become a ritual for Mehlman since he became chairman of the GOP in January. It is part of an audacious bid to chip away at the Democratic Party's most loyal constituency: black voters.

The goal is to broaden the base of the Republican Party and forge a new GOP majority that can win elections well into the future. Even a relatively small shift in black voting patterns could boost Republicans and cripple Democrats for years, strategists on both sides say.

It is a vision pursued by previous Republican Party leaders, but with little success. Lee Atwater, who was RNC chairman in the late 1980s and early 1990s, once won appointment to the board of trustees of Howard University, but left after intense student protests.

Despite periodic Republican outreach efforts, nearly nine out of 10 blacks voted for Democratic presidential candidates over the past four decades.

But Bush's success in modestly increasing black support in battleground states such as Ohio with a culturally conservative message during the 2004 election caused some religious and cultural leaders to see an opportunity for the GOP to overcome its difficult history with black voters.

"I can't go to the party with Democrats right now because they are playing some strange music," said Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., a registered Democrat and pastor of Hope Christian Church in College Park. Jackson said he opposes abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

Jackson, who was among more than 20 black religious leaders who met with Bush at the White House last month, said he left impressed with Bush's efforts to increase black homeownership, to extend more funding to faith-based social service agencies and to increase funding to slow the spread of AIDS in Africa.

"People who are skeptical about the Republicans don't realize the sincerity of their outreach effort," Jackson said.

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