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Inside Politics

GOP aims for diversity, black votes

Republicans in minority among minorities

By Greg Botelho

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- The Democratic Party has long maintained a near monopoly on the African-American vote, a claim Republicans hope to tackle by putting on a new face this week in New York.

The GOP hails its 2004 delegate pool as its most diverse ever. Minorities make up 796 of the party's 4,853 delegates and alternates -- 16.4 percent overall, a major jump from 10 percent such representation in 2000 and 6.3 percent four years prior. The figure includes 290 African-Americans, as well as 297 Hispanics and 209 other minorities.

(By comparison, 39.1 percent of delegates and alternates to July's Democratic convention in Boston, Massachusetts, were minorities -- including 20.3 percent African-American and 11.3 percent Hispanic representation.)

"If people see this as an election-year ploy, they will see it as having no substance," said former Rep. J.C. Watts, an African- American and rising Republican star before retiring from Congress in 2002, of the GOP's increasing diversification.

Watts points to the Bush administration's appointment of minorities to top positions and its leadership on issues such as AIDS in Africa, affordable housing and education -- all of which, he says, proves the White House's commitment to African-Americans.

"I think President Bush has not just made symbolic moves, he has been very substantive over the last three-and-a-half years on issues that black people are most concerned about."

Yet recent data suggests that sentiment doesn't reflect views in the minority community.

A Gallup poll taken earlier this summer showed Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry leading Bush 81 percent to 12 percent among black voters and 57 percent to 38 percent among Latinos. That lopsided result actually marks a significant GOP improvement from 2000, when exit polls showed that Bush received only 9 percent of the black vote and 35 percent of the Latino vote.

"They can't be much more united than in the past -- it's nearly impossible -- but they will certainly be unified," said David Bositis, a senior researcher at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank focused on African-American issues.

"In terms of issues, black unemployment has risen under Bush, incomes are generally flat, Bush opposed affirmative action and African-Americans were more opposed to the Iraq war than any other group," he said, noting all these things work against the Republicans.

Watts admits Republicans can't turn the corner with minority voters overnight. But he says the party's decision to further diversify its 2004 delegate pool and successes of several black GOP political figures signal definite progress.

"Outreach has to be long-term, and it has to be entrepreneurial," said Watts. "If you see it over the long term -- four to seven years, and not four to seven months -- that's how you make gains."

In 2004, Bositis says voters shouldn't confuse the changing face of the GOP delegate pool with the political reality, particularly in black communities.

"It was much commented in 2000 how Republicans had several minority speakers, but very few minority delegates. So they made a decision to make their delegate [pool] more diverse," he said.

"But [the 2004 minority delegates] don't represent black voters, because they generally weren't picked by black voters. In reality, the purpose of having all these minority delegates is more an appeal to white swing voters, to make it appear as if the party is more diverse and not as conservative."

'You still have to show up'

Gwen Southerland, an alternate delegate at the GOP convention, admits she's "definitely" the minority as a black Republican in her hometown of Washington, D.C.

"We're hated -- they don't like us," Southerland says with a chuckle.

But Southerland says she has long been drawn to the GOP's emphasis on entrepreneurship and personal responsibility, as well as party "values" such as "God, family and country."

"Republicans are the party of my people, created for my people," she said, alluding to the GOP's origins as the anti-slavery party of President Abraham Lincoln.

Several African-Americans have soared up the Republican Party ranks in recent years, the biggest names including national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Education Rod Paige.

In addition to high-profile speeches by Paige and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, an Asian American, Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele will give a prime-time speech Tuesday night. In another example, both Ohio's lieutenant governor and secretary of state -- Jeannette Bradley and Kenneth Blackwell, respectively -- are black.

"Over the last four or five years, we've seen more African- Americans being elected on the state, local and county level," said Watts, formerly the GOP's lone black member in the House and chair of the House Republican Conference for four years. "That's where the gains are being made, and it gives you more of a grassroots network."

The Republican convention has a more diverse delegate pool than in years past.

On the federal level, Bositis says Bush's personal relationships with the likes of Powell and Rice -- both of whom served in his father's administration -- have more to do with their roles than any sweeping movement in Republican circles.

"They're there because they are old Bush friends and associates, not because they're there to represent African-Americans," he said.

"By and large, while black people wanted to be represented in the Bush administration, it wouldn't be in national security positions" -- noting that President Clinton appointed African-Americans to posts in departments such as commerce, agriculture, labor and transportation more often associated with black priorities.

Yet Republicans say they can make a strong pitch to black voters -- if they're given a chance.

"That's up to the people, us minorities," said Southerland. "I just think people should make an attempt to understand what the other party is saying, and ask, what is over there for me?"

"I don't think you should write off any vote," adds Watts, echoing Bush who hinted that Democrats may take the black vote for granted in a late July speech to the National Urban League. "You still have to show up."

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