When former President Jimmy Carter said racism was an underlying factor in attacks on President Obama, it's safe to say he had no intention of boosting Allen West's campaign for Congress in Florida's Broward County.
But according to West, a retired Army colonel who is running for the second time against Democratic Rep. Ron Klein in Florida's 22nd congressional district, that is exactly what has happened.
"Since (Democrats) have thrown out the race card, it has made me more appealing," says West, one of a small but determined group of black Republicans running for seats in the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives in 2010.
Eager to overturn the "conventional wisdom" that the GOP is mainly a white bread party that offers few opportunities for minorities, these black Republicans believe they can attract increasingly agitated conservatives, as well as independents, to make 2010 their year.
They also conceded in interviews that the injection of race -- a familiar theme since Obama's election last year -- has given them a certain edge and authority when they speak out against the president's agenda. Because they're black, they say, they can lead the charge against Democratic policies without being called "racist." In fact, they say, their skin color may make them more attractive candidates.
"A lot of people who don't want to be part of Obama's policies are being called racist," West said. "Then they say, 'Hey, this guy, Colonel West -- he's black and I support him.'"
"It's made me more appealing," West told FOXNews.com, "because it shows the contrast of our principles -- how different we are even though we both have permanent tans."
Ryan Frazier, a 31-year-old councilman from Colorado, is running for U.S Senate against Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet. He, too, thinks his black skin will make it impossible to label him a racist because he opposes the president.
"I don't think they will be able to use that argument against me or engage in those tactics against me -- I certainly don't hate myself," Frazier said.
Michael Williams, the four-term Texas railroad commissioner who plans to run for the U.S Senate seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson next year, says being black will help him, too.
"One of the things it allows me to do, "it allows me to speak very, very frankly about what I believe, and what I feel, and nobody is going to call me a racist. " Williams said.
"They may try and call me a sell-out ... but I've been doing this for 11 years and that certainly doesn't bother me anymore."
Williams wrote a strident response to Carter on his Web site last month, saying that "stigmatizing honest opposition as 'racist' appears to be a way of not answering legitimate questions about policy reform. I, for one, oppose the president's health care plan because it will explode the deficit, allow further government intrusion into the doctor-patient relationship, and continue to insulate healthcare consumers from the true cost of their care."
John Gizzi, political editor for the conservative Human Events magazine, said emerging "top tier" black Republicans like Williams and West "are the worst nightmare for Democrats," because "they will be the ones who can go toe-to-toe with Barack Obama and the media will pay attention.
"The very fact that these candidates, who happen to be African-American, can address the issue (of health care) ... is very, very significant," Gizzi said. "People are going to listen because they will eliminate any racially incendiary issues that have entered into this debate."
Blacks and the GOP: A Mixed Bag
Black Republicans have been trying for years to break onto the scene with notable, but minimal, success, Gizzi said.
There have been four black U.S senators since Reconstruction. The first was Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke, a Republican, who served from 1967-1979. The other three were all Illinois Democrats -- Carol Mosely Braun (1993-1999), Obama (2005-2008) and Roland Burris, who replaced Obama last year.
In 1990, Gary Franks of Connecticut was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives -- the first black Republican elected to the House since1932. He served three terms before he was defeated in 1996.
Since Franks, there has been only one black Republican in the House -- J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, who served from 1995 to 2003.
There have been some notable also-rans, most recently former NFL star Lynn Swann, who ran and lost against Democrat Ed Rendell for governor of Pennsylvania in 2006. At the same time, Republican Secretary of State Ken Blackwell ran and lost a bid for governor in Ohio.
After losing his bid for U.S. Senate in 2006, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele became the second black official to head a major political party when he was elected Republican National Committee chairman 10 months ago. The other black party chairman was Ron Brown, who headed the Democratic National Committee from 1989 to 1993.
The GOP still calls itself the "Party of Lincoln" because of its historical ties to the abolition of American slavery, and blacks remained loyal to the party after Reconstruction as Southern Democrats established segregationist Jim Crow laws. But the scene began to shift during the Depression, as blacks voted in large numbers for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal policies.
The Democrats cemented their lock on black voters in the 1960s when President Lyndon Johnson pushed his Great Society programs and, more importantly, the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress. Four years later, in 1968, Richard Nixon wooed disenchanted Southern Democrats to win the presidency, setting the GOP on its current course, demographically, with voters of color.
"[Blacks] are the most reliable, monolithic voting component in the Democratic Party," Gizzi said.
It means candidates like Williams and West are rare, but it also gives them an appeal: they are running against stereotypes, with conservative ideas they insist should appeal to people of all colors. They believe blind faith in government has hurt the black community, and want to make that case plainly.
"Our time will come," Williams said. "And when it does, the floodgates will open."
Frazier said he believes the current political climate favors a push toward diversification in the GOP.
"I think it's reasonable to say the landscape is unfolding in such a way in which Republicans in general have an opportunity to gain the confidence of the people, and a big part of that is going to require the Republican Party to put forth new voices and different people," Frazier told FOXNews.com. "In order for Republicans ... to grow its ranks, it must reflect America."
"Race has nothing to do with it."
But at least one black Republican says race has everything to do with it, and he complains that the current crop of candidates are running "color blind" Ã¢â‚¬â€œ essentially ignoring their roots and writing off the black vote.
"They are a total embarrassment," political consultant Raynard Jackson, a black Republican.
Jackson said there have been incidents in which the rhetoric among some Republican activists has gone too far, and that black Republicans would have been better served to say so. "They seem more intent about being accepted into the party than calling a spade a spade," he told FOXNews.com.
He said black candidates do not put other blacks in positions of authority in their campaigns, nor do they spend time cultivating special relationships within the black community that might earn them fundraising dollars and valuable support down the road.
More importantly, he said, they do not craft their campaign rhetoric or platforms to reach out to black voters, and in their zeal to be "color blind," they likely miss out on some real opportunities to change minds and win votes in a "lost" community.
"They are missing out on a golden opportunity, he said. "Messaging. That's marketing 101. If you don't recognize the color ... you will not be able to formulate a message to reach out to the different demographics."
But the candidates themselves disagree that they should make a central theme of their campaigns. They think their success relies on broad conservative appeal, not color appeal.
"Our folks are saying they want a reliable conservative -- that happens to be what's catching on with me," Williams told FOXNews.com. "It just happens to be an added plus, me being an African-American."
West, who captured 45 percent of the vote in his Florida swing district in 2008, says his positions on the economy and national security are resonating with his constituents. "It has nothing to do with race," he said. "People don't care about your color, they care about your character."
Retired Army Col. Louis Huddleston, who is running for Congress against incumbent Rep. Larry Kissell, D-N.C., is blunt when talking about race. "My bona fides and my credibility ... have nothing to do with my race," he said. "It may be good for copy or for media sensationalism. But my success will not be based on race.
"I don't function from that paradigm," he said. "Race is a benign characteristic. It is who you are and what motivates you that matters."
Frazier said he's not living in a bubble -- "I go anywhere, the NAACP as well as the tea parties." He is also sure that Carter's comments "did nothing to further race relations in this country."
"Does racism exist in this country? Sure. But I think the overwhelming majority of Americans who care about this country do not care about skin color," Frazier said.
"My candidacy is based on solutions and beliefs I hold near and dear. It's not going to be about race, and when I oppose Obama, it is going to be purely because I believe his administration is headed the wrong way."