Condoleezza Rice, the top foreign policy adviser to George W. Bush, still remembers the day she stopped being a Democrat.
It was just after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Three years earlier, the Birmingham, Ala., native had registered as a Democrat and "with great enthusiasm" cast her first presidential vote for fellow southerner Jimmy Carter. But with the invasion of Afghanistan, the no-nonsense Rice, who was closely following the Soviets as a young professor, regarded Carter's response to the crisis as weak and naive. The next year she voted for Ronald Reagan over Carter in the presidential race and by 1982 had changed her registration from Democrat to Republican.
Today, she is both one of the party's leading foreign policy analysts and rising stars, and her importance to Bush and the Republicans was solidified when she was scheduled to join Arizona Sen. John McCain and Elizabeth Dole as one of the coveted prime-time speakers at the convention on Tuesday night.
Rice, 45, has a splendid resume: former provost at Stanford University, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, senior staff member at the National Security Council under former President George Bush. Friends say those markers of success at a young age reflect not just her brainpower and poise but also the toughness she has displayed while making her way up the ranks of the foreign policy establishment.
For the past 18 months, Rice has served as Bush's foreign policy quarterback, a role that includes organizing the team of foreign policy advisers who supply the Bush campaign with ideas, background and new policies and keeping the candidate up to date on world developments.
Steeped in the history of arms control and U.S.-Soviet relations, Rice said her time at Stanford, in the heart of Silicon Valley, has forced her to think about U.S. policy in the information age. "You cannot sit where I've sat for six years and not think about how much the world has changed," she said.
Rice is best known as a coolly analytical foreign policy scholar with an expertise in Russian affairs, but she can also be a passionate-spoken African American woman whose conversion to the Republican Party grew in part from her belief that decades of Democratic Party ideology had left America's minority children worse off, not better.
Rice said she makes a big distinction between the kind of "residual racism" she and other African American professionals may face and the lives of African American children "trapped in a bad school" in the country's big cities.
"The biggest challenge right now for African Americans is to understand the particular witches' brew of racism and poverty when it's linked," Rice said in an interview with Washington Post editors and reporters this week.
"If you focus on those people and you ask about opportunities for those people, you have to ask if the orthodoxy of the Democratic Party has done anything in 30 years to help the situation in those poor inner-city high schools," she added. "They've gotten worse and they've gotten worse and they've gotten worse. . . . I think it's time for new approaches."
But if Rice questions Democratic solutions to problems of persistent poverty, educational underachievement and lingering racism, she doesn't spare her own party from criticism.
To this day, she is grateful to former President Lyndon B. Johnson for "staring down the Dixiecrats" and signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and she said Republicans "missed an opportunity in the mid-1960s to be the party of civil rights."
Rice calls it "a legacy the party's going to have to live down," but added, "Just like I'm always telling people in the Balkans and east-central Europeans, 'Get over it, don't fight last century's wars and hatreds,' I think that we have to also as African Americans look at what's happening today."
She was drawn to Bush in part because of his emphasis on diversity and inclusion. "It helps a lot that George W. Bush cares about it and that he makes it a part of his agenda and that he's willing to go to the NAACP and say that, you know, we've not always had the easiest relationship," Rice said. "It matters that he talks as he does about immigrants with the kind of respect that he talks about immigrants."
But even with those efforts, she said, it may take years for the Republicans to be seen as a truly open party, as the party attempts to overcome the distrust among minorities engendered by policies and attitudes that have not been inclusive. "I think it can be done, but it's not going to happen overnight," Rice said, adding that it will "take successive Republican nominees to carry that message."
Her speech on Tuesday will be neither a tour of the horizon on foreign policy nor purely biographical. But in her role as the GOP candidate's most visible foreign policy adviser, she knows she is also a symbol the party desperately wants to project.
"I think that for African Americans in particular, what I've been saying is just take another look," she said. "I'm not trying to convince you to vote Republican tomorrow, I'm trying to get you to take another look at this party."