A June 9 article on the Maryland Republican Party's outreach to ethnic voters included the wrong name for a Latino organization established by the GOP. The Hispanic Republicans of Maryland group was formed by the party after GOP leadership voted to break ties with the Maryland Hispanic Republican Caucus. (Published 6/11/04)

In a red-and-gold-draped banquet hall often reserved for Chinese wedding parties, Maryland's most prominent Republicans arrived yesterday to court a group that some analysts view as the state's emerging political darlings: Asian American voters.

"You can't build a party on white men alone," Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. told the crowd gathered at a fundraiser for the GOP's 8th Congressional District candidate, Chuck Floyd.

Ehrlich said the state Republican Party had already broken barriers by tapping Michael S. Steele to be Maryland's first African American lieutenant governor and now hopes to broaden its appeal to other ethnic groups.

About 500 tickets were sold for the event at a Gaithersburg Chinese restaurant, billed by organizers as the first major Republican fundraiser in Maryland to focus on Asian American voters.

Unlike African Americans and Latinos, who tend to vote heavily Democratic in Maryland, Asian Americans haven't skewed toward -- or been cultivated by -- one political party. That could make them key swing voters, leaders in both parties say.

Their numbers make them hard to ignore: In Montgomery County, Asian Americans make up 11 percent of the population and are concentrated in affluent areas such as Potomac and Bethesda. African Americans compose 15 percent of the population and Latinos 11.5 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In the 8th District alone, Floyd's consultants tell him, there are nearly 70,000 Asian voters -- with roots in India, Korea, China, Vietnam and Japan. The district includes most of Montgomery and a corner of Prince George's County.

In the same banquet hall six months ago, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) took in about $35,000 for future campaigns, including a possible run for governor in 2006. Floyd expected to raise as much last night. And his opponent, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D), has made several appearances at events at the New Fortune restaurant.

"Asian Americans are a force to be reckoned with in Montgomery County and certainly for any candidate running for governor," said Keith Haller, a Montgomery pollster. " . . . They've shown a propensity to stay informed in local issues and politics. They've proven to be less knee-jerk in support of the Democrats compared to, say, African Americans and Hispanics."

Although Ehrlich's recent remarks about multiculturalism being "bunk" have drawn vocal criticism from several black and Latino political groups, some Asian American leaders at last night's event said the controversy has been blown out of proportion.

Sam Malhotra, chairman of the Indian American Republican Council, which was formed last year, said he agreed with Ehrlich that although people can retain their culture at home, everyone should learn to speak English.

"We say we can be Vietnamese Americans, Indian Americans, but we're Americans first. We gave up our homeland and came here for a brighter future," said Malhotra, a Potomac resident who owns an engineering consulting firm and helped organize last night's event.

Malhotra said the Republican Party has appealed to him and other Asian American entrepreneurs because of its emphasis on family, education, lower taxes and self-reliance. He noted, however, that the "extreme right doesn't resonate with us."

Ehrlich reiterated last night his belief that most Maryland residents understood that his remarks about multiculturalism to a radio show host last month should not be construed as anti-immigrant.

"We have a Hispanic council; we go to ethnic festivals," he said after his speech. "We welcome people from all over the world."

Floyd, posing for pictures with guests at the fundraiser, said he did not agree with Ehrlich's radio comment. "I think he meant it in a positive light. He just didn't use the right words," said Floyd, a small-business owner from Kensington.

"Multiculturalism is very, very important," he added.

In Virginia, Asian Americans also have been wooed by both parties. Candidates in Fairfax County -- where Asians are 13 percent of the population -- regularly make stops at Asian-owned businesses and buy ads in ethnic newspapers. Republicans in the General Assembly redrew a legislative district to afford Asians and Latinos more representation.

The Latino community has also been courted by both political parties, and Maryland GOP chief John Kane says Republicans can capitalize on conservative social issues to attract many of those voters. The party leadership recently established the Maryland Hispanic Republican Caucus.

But the Latino candidates elected to office in 2002 -- two state delegates and a Montgomery County Council member -- were all Democrats. And some Maryland political scientists think that Latino voters will stay solidly in the Democratic column.

It is the Asian vote that is up for grabs, said James Gimpel, a professor at the University of Maryland who has recently studied voting patterns in the state.

"There's all this ridiculous furor over Latinos," he said. "What's very interesting are the Asians. There's tremendous value in their unpredictability. . . . They are in play."

Studies show that Asian immigrants are becoming U.S. citizens at a faster rate than Latinos. Yet as a group, Asian Americans haven't historically favored a particular party, Gimpel said. Nor do they tend to vote for a candidate simply because the person is Asian. But they do turn out to vote in great numbers, particularly in local races, he said.

Nationally, Asian Americans are the wealthiest and most highly educated ethnic group, with a median income of $53,600 and 47 percent of those older than 25 holding a bachelor's degree or higher, according to census figures.

Because many Asian Americans are newer residents and voters, the GOP's Kane said, they may be more open to his party's message.

"They come to America looking for government as less of a solution and opportunities as the answer," he said, adding that many African American voters have "become ensconced in the Democratic programs of the 'new era' society that have failed."

At last night's fundraiser, many of the guests were not Asian, and one sign, taped over a Chinese screen, boasted: "Irish American Republican Club." Some of the Asian Americans there had also attended Democratic events.

George Dang, a financial adviser who lives in Silver Spring, attended Duncan's fundraiser in December and helped organize yesterday's event for Floyd, a friend.

"I'm an independent. I have friends on both sides," said Dang, who has both a Vietnamese and a Chinese heritage.

Dang said he looks for politicians who appreciate "globalism" and are culturally sensitive. He said Ehrlich's remarks about multiculturalism gave him pause.

"I think he meant that immigrants need to learn English. I agree with that," Dang said. "But I want to make sure that he realizes that new languages take time to learn."

Dang has not yet decided whom he will support for governor. "I'll see how they perform," he said, "and see how they express their views on Asian Americans."