"What you'll find is I'm a storyteller."

Ken Blackwell announces this two hours into dinner, after already telling approximately 43 stories. Stories about growing up in the Laurel Homes housing project in Cincinnati. About basketball legend Oscar Robertson coming to his 12th-birthday party. About his grandfather who played in the Negro Leagues and his uncle, the first black Olympic gold medal winner. Long jump, 1924.

Blackwell rolls the stories out like dim sum. He has perfected the conversational art that is crucial in American politics if you are to soar like a Blackwell, from Cincinnati mayor to Jack Kemp's deputy at HUD to Ohio state treasurer to Ohio secretary of state.

Last month Steve Forbes named him national chairman of his presidential campaign, making Blackwell the first African American to head the presidential effort of a major white candidate. It's the kind of American milestone that used to excite or pain the populace, depending on one's view of progress, but this one just passed into the ether. In other news from the campaign trail . . .

In part that's because Forbes is not exactly the odds-on favorite to become the next president--he is currently swimming against the Bushtide, hovering around 6 percent in the polls among Republican contenders. In other words, he's a long shot, which diminishes the significance of Blackwell's role.

But there's something else at work: Being a racial pioneer does not have the same meaning it did when Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in 1947 or when Thurgood Marshall was appointed to the Supreme Court 20 years later. Those blacks--and many others like them--were viewed as proxies for their race. Their successes and failures were meticulously documented as if they were representations of an entire people.

Over time, waves of individual achievement have reduced the burden of the "first black." Today, there are so many black pioneers in so many categories--designer of the Seawolf submarine, president of the Junior League of Boston--that it's no longer possible to catalogue the phenomenon.

That is what Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy calls an "emancipatory" development. "You don't have to feel like you're Jackie Robinson anymore," he says. "You can just be an individual. You can be like everybody else. If you fail, you fail. Tomorrow you can wake up."

Perhaps. But many African Americans who operate in those rare environs of attainment find that race is still a defining characteristic of their existence. The expectations from members of their race are high. Others are watching, sometimes warily, to see if they can do the job and be fair to all. "You basically end up having a different measurement," says Bill Gray, who ran up a series of first-black achievements in the 1980s as a congressman, including being the first black chairman of the House Budget Committee. Everyone wants to be great at what they do, he says, but blacks seem disproportionately mandated not to fall short.

"You've got to be better than average," says Gray. "Being a minority, average is failure."

Blackwell is asked what this all means in 1999 as he sits at a corner table with his rosemary salmon in one of Washington's finer restaurants, a restaurant in which he and his dinner partner are the only blacks in sight. He knows the sensation Gray speaks of because he's been there, done that. In 1994, he became the first African American to win statewide executive office in Ohio when he was elected treasurer. The expectations for Blackwell are not quite the same, however; the symbolism not quite as resonant. Gray was a Democrat busting through barriers. Ken Blackwell represents a political party of which most blacks expect little.

Still, chairman of a white conservative's presidential campaign? Uncle DeHart Hubbard, the gold medal winner, would have been impressed. Blackwell tells another story.

When he was a freshman at Xavier University, he and a friend accompanied the Rev. E.J. O'Connor to the Cincinnati Gardens to watch the Golden Gloves boxing tournament. After 10 fights, an Irish Catholic kid climbed into the ring and made the sign of the cross. "Father, what's the significance of this?" Blackwell's friend asked. O'Connor replied: "Not a damn thing if he can't fight."

The message, says Blackwell, is simple: "Symbolism, firsts, those are nice, but they're not enough in and of themselves. If I thought that was the reason Steve tapped me, I wouldn't be impressed by that. . . . My task, at the end of the day, is to have my candidate win."

And how is he going to do that, given that the party establishment seems poised to crown Texas Gov. George W. Bush king before a single primary has been held?

"One word," Blackwell says. "Last. L--A--S--T."

'He Is an Individual'

There is a cynical, strategic, political way to view Blackwell's appointment as national chairman: Forbes has positioned himself on the right in his party and is battling for the votes of social conservatives, along with Dan Quayle, Pat Buchanan, Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes. But if he is to be thought of as a party standard-bearer who can actually win the general election, he must demonstrate he has broad appeal. Right now, the broad-appeal label is owned by Bush, with Elizabeth Dole, Lamar Alexander and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) scratching to get their own traction. What better way for Forbes to enter that competition than to have as his main surrogate an African American elected official, someone who can be a highly visible presence for him on the hustings and the Sunday network talk shows?

Forbes refuses to be drawn into that game. "I think the fact that somebody of Ken Blackwell's background would back me says more about him than anything else. It says that he is an individual who makes up his own mind."

There isn't a rote model for constructing a national presidential campaign. The structure must be compatible with the candidate and the kind of campaign he is running. Thus one campaign's chairman is not necessarily the equal of another's.

Sometimes the designation is little more than an honorific, conferred on someone who can give the candidate added credibility in a state or among a constituency. Lamar Alexander's campaign chairman is former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who served four consecutive terms in a state that kicks off the presidential primary season. Alexander has hitched his presidential hopes on success in the Iowa caucuses, and so for him, there could not be a better selection than Branstad.

In 1996, the entire Republican field courted New Hampshire Gov. Steve Merrill like a date to the prom. For Bob Dole, who won the sweepstakes, Merrill's endorsement was worth the title of national chairman, though Merrill--and this is embarrassing--couldn't deliver a victory in his own state. In 1988, Democrat Michael Dukakis felt he needed someone he trusted completely, a consigliere of sorts. So he named as his chairman a close friend, Boston attorney Paul Brountas, who has never resurfaced in national politics.

Sometimes, however, the campaign chairman is indeed the big kahuna, the overlord of the grand strategy, the campaign's key decision-maker. That model would be James Baker, George Bush's 1988 campaign chairman, and Tony Coelho, Vice President Gore's chairman now.

In his first presidential bid, Forbes entered the race late and had a loose campaign structure. Former Wyoming senator Malcolm Wallop, a brand name in conservative circles, was tapped to be chairman after Forbes finished fourth in Iowa and New Hampshire. The intention was to signal a shake-up in the campaign.

This time the campaign is better organized, though once again its key figure is campaign manager Bill Dal Col. He serves as the principal strategist and controller of day-to-day operations. Which makes Blackwell what?

"I see myself as being a kind of chairman of the board," he says of his role, "involved in policy decisions, recruitment . . . not to be a Mr. Fixit, not to be a micromanager."

"I think he will bring good political advice, superb policy advice, and be an excellent spokesman," says Forbes. "Obviously he understands swing states like Ohio well."

"I think what I bring to him," Blackwell adds, "is somebody he trusts and who he knows does not need a tutorial on what he believes."

Breathing Rarefied GOP Air

In some ways they are of the same world, and in other ways they are of completely separate lands. It is not uncommon for Blackwell to attend meetings at which he is the only person of color in the room. It is not uncommon for Forbes to attend meetings at which there are no people of color in the room.

Forbes is a multimillionaire publisher who inherited a fortune. He spent $37 million of his own money when he ran in 1996. Blackwell's father was a meatpacker, his mother a ninth-grade dropout who instilled in him the value of reading. "My mom used to try to convince me and my brother that we were blessed because we didn't have a television," Blackwell quips, recalling the books his grandmother passed along from the families she worked for.

Blackwell breathes rarefied air in the Republican Party. He is handed politically delicate assignments, such as co-chairman of the bipartisan Census Monitoring Board, the panel that's advising the federal government on how to conduct the 2000 census. At 51, he is still hailed as the party's future. He abandoned a bid for governor last year and instead ran for secretary of state, easing the minds of party leaders who feared a divisive gubernatorial primary. Blackwell still wants to be Ohio's governor. He believes it will be his turn in 2006, after Republican Bob Taft serves his two terms. But who knows? He wouldn't mind working for a GOP president in the interim--if the right job were offered.

There are paltry few African Americans like Blackwell in the GOP. He is a conservative who gets 40 percent of the black vote statewide. He supports affirmative action and is not afraid to use the term. Forbes is against affirmative action but tries to dress up his opposition in vague language.

"Steve is against quotas and set-asides," explains campaign manager Dal Col. "He is for affirmative efforts. . . . Affirmative action for us means quotas and set-asides. We need to reach out, be inclusive. What we can't do is predetermine outcomes."

"One of the greatest challenges is finding a common language to talk about this complex issue," says Blackwell diplomatically. "But let's understand. I call it affirmative action. I'm for affirmative action for white kids in Appalachia, so why am I going to change my language?"

Bottom line on this issue: Forbes supports the initiatives that were passed in California and Washington state that outlaw the use of race as a factor in state government contracting, employment and admissions to public universities. Blackwell opposed a similar measure when it was bandied about in Ohio.

"I don't think I have to agree with him on everything," says Blackwell. "I think there just has to be enough core philosophy we share."

Blackwell likes to build coalitions. He likes to play checkers. He likes football and played linebacker in college. In 1970, the Dallas Cowboys drafted him, but he didn't make the cut. Nearly 30 years later, he is still an imposing figure--6 feet 4 and change, 260 pounds. He is also a complicated figure.

He opposes abortion rights, once refused to issue a mayoral proclamation for Gay Pride Day and hurt himself among blacks in 1990 by endorsing President Bush's veto of a civil rights bill. Local NAACP officials accused him of selling out to win votes in a congressional race he ultimately lost. In other words, he is not a moderate. But he's also not predictable. When he was on the city council in the 1980s, he pushed through a law that required banks to disclose the business they did with minorities and women if they wanted to become city depositories.

Blackwell is a supply-sider and a tax reformer, which is how he came to be friends with Steve Forbes, whom he met in 1985. Both serve on the board of the National Taxpayers Union. Both have close ties to Jack Kemp. Forbes's campaign manager Dal Col worked for Blackwell at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which Kemp ran during the Bush administration.

"To use the old Marxist term, a comrade in arms, a fellow traveler." That's how Forbes describes his relationship with Blackwell. "We're singing from the same song sheet. . . . This wasn't two strangers coming together in the night."

Forbes campaigned for Blackwell last year during his run for secretary of state. He was impressed that Blackwell bucked the political establishment and fought a 1998 ballot initiative that would have raised the state sales tax. "I said this is a man who can withstand pressure. This is my kind of man."

And so after the '98 elections, the courtship of Blackwell by those planning to run for president in 2000 began. Forbes adviser Don Devine made the first overture under the guise of seeking advice about the state. He made it clear, though, that Forbes would be interested in Blackwell taking a leadership role in his campaign.

Rep. John Kasich (R-Ohio), who was considering a bid, paid a visit. Emissaries for Dan Quayle, Bush and Elizabeth Dole came calling. This is a careful dance. No candidate wants to be turned down when putting together a leadership team, so the trick is to gauge interest and be certain of acceptance before making an offer.

The best offer came from the Forbes camp.

"The bottom line in all of this," says Blackwell, "is the Forbes people were the only folks saying, 'We want you to be the guy.' " And what were the other campaigns talking about? "Being a co-chairman. You were going to be one of 12 or one of 16."

Still, Blackwell was in no hurry to commit. He was trying to get a grip on his new job as secretary of state. The talks continued, and by April, after pressure mounted from various friends associated with Forbes, he had pretty much decided he would do it. It is not a paid position, and Blackwell says he intends to continue spending most of his time doing what the voters of his state elected him to do.

One of the assurances he received from Forbes was that an Ohio campaign headquarters would be opened by Labor Day--not only to give the candidate a presence there but to give the chairman a shingle for his work.

When Blackwell considers how far he has come from his roots in public housing, he thinks of his father and is inspired to tell another story.

"My father used to say, 'Trust everybody but always cut the cards,' " says Blackwell. "I am mindful that life is short and that my father died when he was 56 years old. You don't worry about the big campaigns or the little campaigns. You worry about how you live your life. I am always reminded that Lincoln lost 11 races."

And if Ken Blackwell's candidate should flame out in 2000, Ken Blackwell will probably resurface somewhere, at another time, a first all over again. With another story to tell.

CAPTION: Campaign chairman Ken Blackwell, left, and his candidate, Steve Forbes. "We're singing from the same song sheet," says Forbes.

CAPTION: "I don't think I have to agree with him on everything," Ken Blackwell, right, says of boss and GOP hopeful Steve Forbes.