In this strange year of redistricting, Republicans sound like Democrats, pushing for more minority districts and accusing their opponents of quashing the political hopes of blacks, Hispanics and others.
Democrats argue they are the ones seeking real power for minorities. But the party that routed the GOP among black and Hispanic voters in last year's presidential race is now pursuing a path that may put fewer minorities in office.
"They switch hats," said Nina Perales, a civil rights lawyer in San Antonio, Texas, where staunch conservative Rep. Tom Delay cited the 1965 Voting Rights Act as he accused state Democrats of trying to destroy minority gains.
While each party defies traditional expectations, a closer look shows a strategy emerging. Both Democrats and Republicans want to use the huge growth among minorities in the 2000 census to their advantage as they fight over new political maps. Winning means the edge in the next decade's worth of elections.
"There's a paradox at work here," said Maurice Cunningham, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.
"Republicans are claiming to be champions of minority interests. And Democrats are gingerly trying to maintain their traditional support of minorities while at the same time needing to keep as many minorities as possible in white, moderate to liberal Democratic districts."
Redistricting is the redrawing of political lines to account for population changes, required after the release of census numbers. Maps from Congress down to city council must be redrawn so electoral districts are equal in size.
The new lines can set the course for control of Congress, where Republicans hold a narrow 221-211 majority in the House; control of state legislatures, with the GOP in control of 18, Democrats with 16, and 15 legislatures split; and local politics nationwide.
Already, race is the key redistricting issue in several states:
-- Republicans in New Jersey are in federal court challenging a new legislative redistricting map, alleging that the plan unconstitutionally dilutes minority voting areas.
-- Democrats in Virginia argued unsuccessfully in legislative hearings that the GOP-approved plan unconstitutionally packs black voters into a few districts to weaken minority influence elsewhere. A lawsuit is a foregone conclusion.
-- Republicans in Texas, where plans are still being drawn, echoed the New Jersey arguments that minority voters should be concentrated. A Hispanic civil rights group has already sued for greater representation.
Similar battle lines will likely emerge in many other states, experts say, especially those with large immigrant populations and lots of Congressional seats, such as California, New York and Florida.
The parties' flip-flop may seem strange. But for those well-versed in redistricting, it is rooted in simple cause-and-effect:
Create a legislative or congressional district with a high percentage of minority voters, and that district may well elect a minority politician, usually a Democrat.
But the districts around the minority district will necessarily have fewer of those minority voters (who tend to vote Democratic) and more white voters (with higher percentages of Republican supporters). Hence, several new districts are created, each with a greater chance of going Republican.
Politicians look back to the last decade in the South, when redistricting brought huge gains for blacks in state legislatures and Congress. At the same time, redistricting was a big factor as white Democrats from the South lost ground in Congress, and Democrats lost control of 14 legislatures nationally.
"The rub there is there is a Republican interest in 'blackening' the districts to the disadvantage of white Democrats," said Virginia state Rep. Jerrauld Jones, a Democrat and chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus.
Republican proposals often push for districts with percentages of minority voters over 60 percent, which experience shows creates a strong likelihood of electing minority legislators.
Democrats, by contrast, often seek districts with minority percentages below 50 percent, which they are now terming "minority opportunity districts." They say minorities could still elect a candidate of their own choosing; not so coincidentally, that also puts more Democratic-leaning voters in nearby districts.
"They want to go back to guarantee that the white suburban Democrat has the opportunity," scoffed GOP New Jersey state Sen. Jack Bennett, the majority leader. "It's the Republicans who are fighting to assure that the representation of minorities is continued and expanded."
Democrats say they have learned from the past, seeking a balance so districts aren't drawn so heavily for one minority that they exclude other people.
"The political boundaries we've created are ensuring that we don't have to deal with each other's pain, that we don't have to deal with each other's issues," said New Jersey state Rep. Wilfredo Caraballo, a Democrat.
He doesn't buy the GOP argument: "It's disingenuous ... Some of the most racist people I've heard get up and want to see more power for minorities, it sickens me."
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling last week, emphasizing that mapmakers consider race along with factors like geography, history and incumbency, left the door open for more lawsuits on redistricting and race.
And the courts are where the parties' strategies will be tested, said Tim Storey, a redistricting expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "All the other states want to see how these play out."